In a strange little interview between Alain Badiou and Slajov Zizek, published under the title Philosophy in the Present, Zizek suggests that much of the history of philosophy has come about because philosophy fails to be a proper dialogue. He argues that most disagreements within philosophy are based in misunderstandings between the two parties. Zizek insists that much of the partisanship within philosophy comes about through philosophers talking over one another, rather than really listening and understanding what their perceived opponent has to say. To some degree, the same can be said about the political. While I don’t intend to suggest that opposing political factions can ultimately be reconciled through proper conversation and discourse, I do believe that the political sphere could be positively impacted by a return to civil political discourse.
The concept of “democracy” is one that I think of a lot when it comes to Western political practice – especially in the US. To some degree, I would argue that there is a profound absence of democracy within the American Democratic process. Sure — ignoring voter restriction laws — everyone is granted the right to vote for whoever they wish. The act of voting for leaders who represent one within congress or the presidency is a democratic process. Voting is a democratic act. However, the United States fails to have a democratic system insofar as its citizens are highly apolitical. What is lacking in these democratic systems is the ability for the public to truly engage with the political process. Today, the political process is dominated by political and economic elites. In order to play a role in contemporary politics there is a need for a certain level of education and economic status. It is nearly impossible to actively engage in the political sphere outside of these positions. Furthermore, the media, which used to function as a public check on the political sphere, is now controlled by the same elite interests as those engaged within the political.
This is not a lack that has always existed. One need only look at Habermas’ dissertation on the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere to understand the history of public opinion on the democratic process in early democratic european systems. The Public Sphere was a space where voices were able to come together and discuss public interests in order to shape public opinion. It is out of these spaces that the news media began to form as a way that the public could challenge those in power. Habermas argues that by coming together and debating things in a rational manner, a public of private citizens was able to come together to form a justified rational consensus that shaped public opinion. While, for reasons outlined in the work of Chantal Mouffe, I reject the possibility of a justified rational consensus, I do believe that a space of Public Discourse along the lines of the Public Sphere could open up a space for genuine democratic participation within the political sphere. Like Mouffe, I believe that a public sphere which embraces antagonistic positions would play a valuable role in shaping political discourse outside of the contemporary oligarchy of elites.
Why is a sphere like this important? It goes back to the idea that in contemporary partisan politics, most of us fail to hear each other. Take an hugely partisan example like Black Lives Matter. In a discussion on BLM with those who are sympathetic towards the movement and one will likely hear about how BLM fights against racial injustice such as police violence against the Black people in the United States. A proponent of BLM might argue that this systematic injustice which treats Black people as second class citizens needs to be stopped. That Black communities deserve the same respect as anyone else. For the proponent of BLM, the movement is one that fights for equality, reconciliation and justice. If, however, you talk to an opponent of the movement, they will likely suggest that Black Lives Matter is antithetical to All Lives Matter, and to a degree antithetical to equality, reconciliation and justice. They might suggest that BLM is a separatist organization which wishes to discriminate against White people. This is not to say that these constitute the only positions in regard to the BLM movement, but it does seem that there is some genuine miscommunication going on. These two depictions seem to present a wholly different movements.
One of the problems with contemporary political discourse is that opposing sides tend to use their rhetoric politically. Thus, in the end, opposing factions may appear to be discussing the same topic because they are using the same word – but the reality is that each side uses a particular term in a particular way. For instance, about a week ago I read a blog post on Hillary Clinton and religious freedom by my undergraduate advisor Kevin den Dulk. What struck me about the discussion was that while Secretary Clinton has suggested that she is in favour of religious freedom, many critics argue that her policy is staunchly opposed to it. One critic, Desanctis, argues that Clinton’s support of the federal Equality Act or pro-choice position go against the interests of religious freedom because these acts go against some religious teachings or force certain religious people to engage in activities that they are not ok with (such as a Catholic writing a marriage license for a same sex couple). Now, while it may be easy to just shrug Clinton’s statement off as politicians saying what their constituents want to hear, lets assume for a moment that she was being genuine. Clinton might argue that her support of LGBTQ+ civil rights and a person’s right to choose do not impede anyone’s ability to freely practice their religion. One might even go so far as to say that the former of these policies could even enhance the religious liberty of an LGBTQ+ individual. No matter what, we ought to realize that “religious freedom” could mean different things to different audiences. In order to properly engage in a discourse that doesn’t lead to the two sides talking over each other it is important to commit to common terms of rhetoric.1
One problem that occurs is that rather than listening to those we perceive as our opposition, we often become preoccupied with arguing our own view point and defending why we are right. I wonder if we had real, honest conversations about political issues whether the strong partisanship would continue. I wonder if listening to those we perceive as our opposition would change our perspective of them. This is not to say that we would necessarily change our political positions. Our political positions and ideologies would likely stay the same, but by truly listening to those we see as other we might be able to better sympathize and empathize with why they believe things in the ways that they do.
Perhaps we need to spend a second thinking about beliefs. We often assume that we rationally come to our beliefs though reasoning through all of the options available to us, but this is rarely the case. We need to understand that everyone – the racist, the capitalist, the fascist, the communist, the Marxist, the Anarchist, whatever – comes to their political beliefs through their experience and contexts. Many people’s political leanings come about through their parenting, or their education, or their neighbourhood, or their friends, or their musical tastes. There are a multiplicity of reasons that someone believes what they do – but there are reasons that have led each of us to believe certain things about the world. It is important to understand that this is the case. Because we each have reasons for believing what we do, it is important to listen to those whose opinions differ from our own so that we can see where they are coming from and attempt to understand why their beliefs are different from our own. What we ultimately need then, is some sort of forum that opens up avenues for individuals to speak from their perspective. Furthermore, it necessitates that we truly listen to those that we disagree with. We must not erase the voices of marginalized perspectives. We need to listen to the voices of those that we disagree with because then we can understand where they are coming from.
There are, of course problems with this. My politics tell me that there are certain discourses that shouldn’t be allowed within a political civil discourse. Discourses which seek to control the bodies of others through measures of discipline via racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. are not ones that should feel welcome within a political sphere. I say this for fear of sounding like a hypocrite. On one hand I’ve suggested that we open upon spaces of civil discourse between opposing parties, but on the other hand I don’t want to open the door to all discourses. But, increasingly I’m siding with the idea that there might be a way to allow those with hateful rhetoric to speak, while not condoning what they say. I fear that this is a dangerous path to travel, but its something that I’ve been struggling lately. On the one hand, I think that we need to listen to everyone – even the racist/fascist/xenophobe. We need to listen because it is important to understand what contexts and factors led them to believe what they do. What spectacular images affected their being in such a way that they desire racism/fascism/xenophobia? If we don’t understand why people desire these things, it would seem to be impossible to destroy those images or territories which led them to believe these things. What events or what rhetoric led to someone hating immigrants, or people of a different ethnicity or race? What things led someone to hate people of different genders? There are contexts that shaped individuals to believe these things – and without listening to these people, we face the risk of further alienation.
What I do not want is compromise. What I want is to create a space where we can actually attempt to hear someone who disagrees with us without rushing to conclusions about why and what they believe. In order to have a functioning civil discourse we need to be able to understand one another. This is not to say that we will agree or even compromise. What we need is the ability to express ourselves in ways that will be heard – and this is not something that contemporary political democracy grants us.
Of course this in itself is controversial. Even if religious freedom were to be given a solid definition within a given discourse, the term “religious freedom” will always already be full of political power. Thus, no politician would even come out against “religious freedom”, particularly in the United States. I’m not exactly sure how this could be solved.