Current Conversation:  Reforming Political Discourse

REVIEW AND APPROVAL OF SUBMITTED COMMENTS: Before submitting a comment on a given posting, please review our “Guidelines for Conversation” for our expectations for respectful engagement with those with whom you may disagree.

A Pause In the Conversation

Due to a death in the family of one of our conversation partners, the November conversation will not be able to continue beyond the November 1 postings.

Please return to our ten-month series on December 1 when Jim Skillen and Harry Boyte will present contrasting views on the “goals” of politics; the ideal characteristics of a well-functioning political system; and the extent to which our current political system in America is, or is not, measuring up to these ideals.

Harold Heie 

Free Speech and its Discontents

It is a privilege to once again participate in one of Harold Heie’s Respectful Conversations. As Harold emphasized in last month’s conversation, one cannot predict where a respectful conversation will go. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be “going” somewhere in this conversation with Julia Stronks as we follow up a rather provocative showing last month. I will also say from the start how grateful I am that we can have in conversation freely in the most literal sense. Neither Julia nor I, nor the previous discussants, need to be looking over our shoulders worrying about being arrested for our musings here. The American constitutional commitment to free speech, even if imperfectly realized, is a significant accomplishment that has been and continues to be all too rare in the world. We do well to remember our neighbors in other regimes who literally sit in prison cells because their governments do not value free speech.

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Understanding Rage

I find that I agree with much of what Harold has said about the need for Christians to engage with humility, courage and love. But I also agree with Greg that our culture is struggling with problems that are deeper than managing the mode by which we engage. Civility is a good thing—of course it is. But I am wary of calls for civility, especially because those calls often come from people in power irritated by others who are angry about injustices that they have experienced.

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Subtopic 3: Are There Limits to Free Speech and Civil Discourse? (November 2017)

Leading Questions: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed Christian perspective on political discourse (Subtopic 2)? Are there ideas so repugnant and dangerous that they shouldn’t be allowed to be uttered in public? What is wrong, if anything, with passionate speech? Are there limits to civility? Is the call for civility a means of control by those in power? Is the call for civility a means to marginalize those “who have no voice?”  

Conversation Partners: 

  • Micah Watson, Associate Professor of Political Science, Calvin College 
  • Julia Stronks, Professor of Political Science, Whitworth University 

It's Both / And; Not Either / Or

I have summarized my hope for exchanges between conversation partners for all of my eCircles as follows: They will start by identifying areas of agreement; followed by identifying areas of disagreement with grace and conviction in a manner that illuminates the basis for the disagreements so clearly that a foundation is laid for ongoing conversation about those disagreements. That hope was realized to a great extent in Greg’s second posting, for which I am deeply appreciative.

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Before Asking What Sort of Speech, Ask What Kind of Politics

In my first post, I attempted to deconstruct the “leading questions” about the nature of the decline of political discourse in the US and how to reverse it.  I argued that these were, in fact, the wrong questions to be asking.  I pointed out that political discourse is always a concrete thing.  It takes place in particular sorts of institutions, whether those are coffee shops, theaters, newspapers, or the internet, institutions that, following Jurgen Habermas, I called the public sphere.  I pointed out that institutions are never neutral.  Rather, they are always already partisan along the lines of race, class, and gender.

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Whatever the Question, How Should We Talk?

I very much appreciate Greg’s thoughtful and insightful initial posting. It helped me to clarify and expand my thinking about both our subtopic (A Proposed Christian Approach to Political Discourse) and my entire eCircle. I will organize my thoughts in my response into three categories: WHAT questions should be asked? WHO should be talking about these questions? and HOW should we talk about these questions?

What Questions Should be Asked?

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Christian Love Demands Something More

My colleague, Dr. Harold Heie, has opened our session of this ten month conversation with a profound meditation on the role the virtue of love plays in shaping human discourse in general, and political discourse in particular. Dr. Heie affirms a norm of respectful, active listening in all places where human beings meet one another, and argues that political conversations, the conversations human beings have about how to order their common life, are no exception. In spite of our differences (which I’ll get to shortly) I find this basic definition of political discourse to be helpful, and to helpfully provincialize the picture of public life that I offered in my own opening reflection.

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Respectful Conversation as a Deep Expression of Love

A strategy I have found to be helpful when I engage with someone who disagrees with me strongly about a given issue, in the political realm and everywhere else, is to first seek areas of agreement. Can we find some “common ground?”  This starting point fits well with my understanding that politics, at its best, is the search for common ground that seeks the common good.

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Challenge the Question Itself

Why has political discourse in America broken down and what can be done to revive it? The question presumes much. Indeed, to be transparent from the outset, it is my intention in the following pages to challenge the premise of the question itself. My argument is not so much that there hasn’t been a breakdown, but that this breakdown is not a declension, and that Christian thinking and acting should not seek to reverse it. The breakdown of “political discourse” is a crisis in liberal democracy, part and parcel with a larger crisis of neoliberal capitalism and global empire to which (I take it to be axiomatic) Christians should stand opposed.

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