Oct  2016 20
Achieving Disagreement as Social Glue?

It may sound trite or obvious, depending on one’s perspective, to say that social cohesion is a major problem in the U.S., as well as in many, many countries around the world.

But, here I go: social cohesion is a big problem in the U.S. What is it that holds members of this country together? Is there any unum or is there only pluribus? The centrifugal forces out-pull the centripetal. There is no center to hold.

The U.S. is a much more complex democracy today than when the Founding Fathers authored documents that excluded more than half the population (women and enslaved persons) from voting. They could not have imagined today’s multi-ethnic, multi-racial, urban, technological, capitalistic, multi-religious, internet-bubbled, attention-dispersed population with money-driven elections.

In order to take on the big problems—the ones that will be far worse, if not catastrophic, in the future if we don’t begin to address them seriously now—a democracy needs to include a sufficient amount of social cohesion, of investment in building social and moral capital.

I mean issues such as clean air and water, fertile soil, race relations, climate change, and how to be a good neighbor when your neighbor is very different from yourself. Currently, the U.S. population as represented in our national and most state governments do not have sufficient social cohesion to address these kinds of serious matters.

In the U.S., we have recently experienced two attempts at social cohesion that have damaged democracy.

The first kind of social cohesion that has been detrimental to U.S. democracy is uniting against an enemy. Of course, uniting to oppose an enemy is a time-tested strategy.

Reflect on what the U.S. did in reaction to 9/11. The U.S. went into a war mode that continues to this day (without raising taxes to pay for it; the lack of a war tax is one indicator of a lack of social cohesion).

A religious group (Muslims) has been demonized and the prejudices of some Christians have deepened. We the People gave up civil liberties in order to feel safer. Uniting a people based on fear, or by putting too much trust and too little accountability in elected leaders is detrimental to a democratic society; those behaviors create dictators and empires, they pave the road for Leviathan (read Thomas Hobbes) but not a just, compassionate, and free society.

The second kind of social cohesion that injures democracy is the attempt to create supermajorities that act without ever “crossing the aisle.”

A single party controls the legislatures in over 40 states. Voting districts have been gerrymandered in order to create or solidify party control. Nationally, each party would love to be in the position of controlling the White House, both houses of Congress, and the power to appoint Supreme Court justices.

But a democracy which is simply “majority rule” is ever in danger of becoming what the critics of democracy in the 18th century alleged: a mob. A democracy which does not respect the rights of political minorities and which is not capable of real debate is hollow.

There is another option for social cohesion in a modern, complex, pluralistic democracy that may sound like a fantasy. The late theologian John Courtney Murray, an American Jesuit priest who was instrumental in writing the Vatican II document on religious freedom, wrote that “Civilization is formed by [persons] locked together in argument.”

Imagine a democracy comprised of (to use James Madison’s phrase) “interests, factions, and sects” locked together in argument. There would be a great deal of disagreement. Precisely!

Murray writes about the importance of disagreement—at working at the practices of conversation and argument, speaking and listening sufficiently to know what is actually being said.

I love the line from a Krista Tippett show when she featured a debate between a pro same-sex marriage advocate and someone who disagreed with him. These two men found common ground in the determination to help people in long-term relationships, of whatever sort, because long-term relationships are hard.

The line I love is that these two men worked hard to “achieve disagreement.” No, achieving disagreement does not produce a policy or a line item in a budget, but achieving disagreement while locked together in argument is a better starting point, by a light year, for advancing civil society than where the U.S. is currently.

Can you imagine the practices and skills that U.S. Americans would need to develop in order to be transformed into a democratic society locked together in argument—not a nostalgic version of democratic society where white male Christians dominated, but a democratic society including the full demographic spread of who the U.S. is today? And can you imagine where we should learn practices and skills for that kind of democratic society?

An emphasis on becoming a society locked together in argument would alter schools, businesses, and religious communities. In turn, those communities might actually influence the way our legislators do their work on our behalf.

I take inspiration from the following:

Civil Conversations Project

National Institute for Civil Discourse.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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