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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?

There is room for significant disagreement about the questions that should be asked in the hope of moving toward a reformation of political discourse. This is evident from Greg’s concern about the “leading questions” that I pose for our subtopic and his proposed “correct question.”

The question “why is political discourse on the decline and how can we revive it?” is the wrong question. The correct question is “how is the public sphere in crisis and how can working class people organize to seize and reinvent it as a commons?”

Holding Greg’s concern about the leading questions that I pose for a later section, my reaction to his “correct question” is that it is an excellent, relevant question. In fact, it can be argued that it is an important “first” question (a “prior” question) to be addressed since it calls for conversation about the perceived pros and cons of the current American context for political discourse (what Greg calls “neoliberal capitalism”).

I am open to improvisation relative to my eCircles (what we called “mid-course corrections” in the aerospace industry). For example, for my past eCircle on human sexuality, I added a third conversation partner for one of my subtopics during the first week of conversation because the initial postings of my two original partners revealed that they did not present differing perspectives. So, I will welcome receiving from Greg, or any other reader of this eCircle, a proposal for two or more persons I can invite to be conversation partners for the question that Greg has posed; persons who will likely give differing responses to this question.

If anyone sends me a suggestion, I will be happy to consider adding an eleventh month to this present eCircle or think about the possibility of a follow-up eCircle, depending on the nature of the suggestion.

Of course, there may be no limit to the questions that should be asked, beyond those I have posed, in the hope of moving toward a reformation of political discourse. In the interest of full disclosure, I had originally planned to include “Race in America” in my present eCircle as one of the “representative public policy issues” for which I wish to model respectful conversation (In addition to the issues of immigration and healthcare that I finally decided upon). In light of recent events, how could that topic be left out?

I scrapped this idea based on a series of face-to-face conversations I had with local friends (academics and practitioners; members of majority and minority population groups) who have far more expertise about race relations than I do (which, unfortunately, does not set a very high bar). These conversations revealed that race relation issues are so multi-faceted and complex that to spend just a month talking about them would do more harm than good. However, these conversations did lead to my designing a potential new eleven month eCircle on this topic. As of today, that design rests in my computer files.

In summary for this section, I embrace Greg’s suggestion for another “correct question” and am open to that possibility I should have added a number of other good questions to my eCircle (So many questions, so little time!). But later in this posting, I will explain my rationale for not including all the questions that should be addressed (besides that being impossible). But I will first address the WHO question, enthusiastically embracing Greg’s concerns about who is typically “left out” of political conversations in America.

Who Should be Talking About These Questions

I agree with Greg’s assessment that the “the public sphere has never been public in the sense of everyone being included.” In particular, “workers, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people” have contested the scope of the public sphere and “thus broadened it,” but “countervailing forces have also sought to narrow it,” thereby “violating norms of ‘civil discourse’ and ‘free speech’.”

So, who should be talking together about possible ways to reform political discourse? In a word, “everyone.” It is my agreement with Greg on this point that prompted me to begin my past eCircle on human sexuality with the subtopic “Voices from the Gay Community,” thereby avoiding the travesty of “straight” people talking “about” gay people rather than talking with them, starting with listening to their painful stories of how they have been brutalized and marginalized in our society.

The need to especially include groups that have been marginalized in political discourse clearly comports with teachings throughout the Bible that Christians are to seek justice for all peoples. It especially exemplifies the teachings of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 25, that those who claim to be followers of Jesus must especially attend to the needs of the poor and marginalized in our midst. But if I believe that, it is legitimate to ask why my eCircle conversations on a given subtopic are limited to two, or at most three conversation partners. To make this probing question more concrete, in the conversation on “Healthcare in America,” scheduled for May 2018, my two conversation partners are highly competent “academics” who have studied and written extensively on public policy issues related to healthcare. But shouldn’t a conversation on healthcare in America also include the coal miner in West Virginia who is on disability due to the negligence of a coal mine owner and now faces the possibility of losing health coverage because of a “pre-existing” condition? Yes! Yes! A thousand times Yes! Why then is he not included in my conversation? I will respond to that legitimate concern later in this posting.

How Should We Talk About These Questions?

So far I have focused on areas where I agree with Greg, even if it appears, at least for now, that the scope of my eCircle belies that agreement. But I must now lay bare a significant area of disagreement. I disagree with Greg’s assertion that “The question ‘why is political discourse on the decline and how can we revive it?’ is the wrong question.” To be sure, it is not the only question. But I believe it is the most important question that my eCircle needs to address. That is because “whatever” other questions need to be addressed (including the question of what other questions need to be addressed), and “whoever” should be addressing these other questions, we cannot proceed until we grapple with the foundational question of “how” we should be addressing these other questions; “how” we should be talking with persons with whom we disagree.

This foundational question is why my first posting focuses on my proposal for “how” Christians should talk to those who disagree with them about political issues, whether they be other Christians or those committed to other religious or secular worldviews. In a nutshell, I have proposed that Christians should engage those who disagree with them about political issues (and all other contested issues) in respectful conversations that exemplify humility, courage and love. And that exhortation applies to conversations about the leading questions that I have posed for my various eCircle subtopics as well as the important additional question that Greg has proposed and all other questions that need to be talked about in future conversations about political discourse.

It is important for me to add that I am not proposing that it is only Christians who should exemplify the virtues of humility, courage and love in talking those who disagree with them about political issues. I start with this exhortation to Christians because theses virtues are central to the Christian faith and we need to get beyond only paying them lip service. The fact is that I know some persons holding to other religious or secular worldviews who exemplify these virtues better than a lot of professing Christians. So, my exhortation is also a reminder to them.

I will highly value any reflections Greg may wish to share relative to my proposal for “how” Christians (and others) should engage those who disagree with them about political issues.

Conclusion: I Just Want to Get the Conversation Started and Model “How” It Can Be Continued.

I now return to the unanswered questions above as to why some important questions have been left out of my eCircle (like the probing question that Greg posed) and why some important conversations partners (beyond my two or three) have been left out of the conversations about some of my subtopics (like a West Virginia coal miner for the healthcare in America conversation).

These omissions make no sense if you think my goal is to come up with a definitive solution to perceived problems with current political discourse in a period of ten months. That would be an impossible goal, even given my propensity to “dream about possibilities that are far out of reach.” I am simply trying to get a conversation started. If the conversation ends with my eCircle, and a book that hopefully emerges from its content, then not much will have been accomplished. My grandiose dream, which I can only envision through the eyes of faith, is that the results of this initial eCircle conversation, will lead to numerous follow-up conversations. Such follow-up conversations must include more topics and more conversation partners who can “give voice” to marginalized groups who have been excluded for too long from conversations that are not academic exercises but that affect the quality of their daily lives (like my coal miner from West Virginia).

So, I start modestly by demonstrating, hopefully, that even just two conversation partners for a given subtopic can model respectful conversations about strong disagreements, with the hope and prayer that such modeling will inspire some of my readers to continue such respectful conversations in their respective spheres of influence toward the ideal of reforming political discourse (giving fair warning that what I am asking readers to consider doing is easy to say, but very difficult to do – to recruit my 22 conversation partners for this eCircle, I had to extend 79 invitations).

Having said that, however, I close with a suggestion that some of the unanswered questions that may now exist in the minds of readers may well be addressed in later months of this present eCircle. My conversation partners for November 2017 will be dealing with the subtopic “Are Their Limits to Free Speech and Civil Discourse?” In light of the leading questions I have posed for them, they will likely say something that addresses Greg’s legitimate concern that the public square, as currently constituted, has left out many who have been marginalized in our society. 

In addition, the conversation scheduled for December 2017 on the subtopic “The Notion of Politics,” will likely address the relationship between responsibilities of “government” and other segments of civil society, including “associations of workers” and other groups who may be marginalized in current political discourse. Similarly, the conversation scheduled for January 2018 on the subtopic “Party Politics and Beyond” will likely call into question the idea that political discourse is only what takes place within the major political parties; which should begin to address Greg’s concern that political discourse should include “everyone.”

So, please keep reading.

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