In an invited post for the blog of the exciting new Center for FaithJustice, I once again tried to show how the liberal/conservative binary just doesn’t work even in the political arena from which it came, much less in a Church that started in the ancient Middle-East.
Some might suggest that a rejection of this binary means taking a ‘middle’ or ‘moderate’ position, but this is only the case if one accepts the linear binary in the first place. Indeed, because so many accept the binary, a position that falls out of its deconstruction will actually be quite radical and counter-cultural–indeed, anything but moderate. Such a position will not be the ‘center’ of anything, because to describe a discourse which engages the radically complex and multifaceted issues in play in such spatial terms is a fundamental mistake. As Dana Dillon helpfully pointed out, it is better to think of the landscape in terms of different clusters of people who tend to answer various questions in similar ways. But given the number of questions involved, and the different issues at stake in each question, many will find themselves in very different company depending what question is being asked. This kind of radical complexity resists abstract categories and two-dimensional thinking.
The solution to this, it seems to me, is to work at seeing our interlocutors in the spirit of Christian charity and intellectual solidarity as real people with complex positions. Often, this simply requires meeting and interacting with them in good faith. Too often those who get to publicly frame the issues of import today miss the particularity of persons and the the positions they hold, and instead define themselves by opposition to their interlocutors in the abstract–something that happens quite naturally when operating in the context of a linear binary like liberal/conservative, commitment/acceptance, etc. Getting beyond this way of thinking is, I believe, the task of all those who wish to have genuine exchange, open to a plurality of voices and commitments as they exist in real people rather than in abstract categories.
Charlie, I appreciate the magenta cast to this cogent post! The binary doesn’t work for me either so I wholeheartedly join you in endorsing its destruction. But let’s acknowledge both the psychic benefits of tribal loyalty and the psychic costs of exile from the two dominant clusters.
“Being aligned with one group offers benefits. It gives one a socially validated place to stand while speaking and it offers the unswerving support of like-minded people. It also exacts costs. It portrays opponents as a single-minded and malevolent gang. In the face of such frightening and unified adversaries, one’s own group must be unified, strong, and certain. To be loyal to that group, one must suppress many uncertainties, morally complicated personal experiences, inner value conflicts, and differences between oneself and one’s allies. Complexity and authenticity are sacrificed to the demands of presenting a unified front to the opponent. A dominant discourse of antagonism is self-perpetuating. Win-lose exchanges create losers who feel they must retaliate to regain lost respect, integrity, and security, and winners who fear to lose disputed territory won at great cost.” (Carol Becker et al., From Stuck Debate to New Conversation on Controversial Issues:
A Report from the Public Conversations Project. http://www.publicconversations.org)
There is no doubt in my mind that ‘radical complexity’ is the appropriate posture in the face of destructive division. But cognitive dissonance is painful and moral diversity is an acquired taste. I know you to have a rare knack for navigating polarized waters and divergent clusters. Your work with the Princeton conference was trailblazing. Sadly, my experiences outside the binary have left me less sanguine and more wounded. I resonate with the feelings Sandra Toenies Keating shared in response to Dana’s post. Perhaps woundedness is the cement that maintains destructive divisions. Many (Most? All?) of us have been disparaged and misunderstood in attempting to share our deepest beliefs and foundational commitments. Remembering this sometimes exquisite pain, we’ve come to feel less safe and more tribal.
Much as I wish it were otherwise, I observe intense and growing contempt for ‘the other’ among many engaged and vocal Catholic interlocutors. And let’s not forget that contempt is made to share. “Tell an acquaintance a cynical story that ends with both of your smirking and shaking your heads and voila, you’ve got a bond.” (Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, p 60.)
Haidt’s work in moral psychology is a rare hopeful sign in this whole morass. He famously called out his own profession for its ideological rigidity and he is at the forefront of efforts to engender an understanding of alternative moral universes. A provocative intro: http://www.newyorker.com/online/video/conference/2007/haidt.
Charlie, obviously you are right about the inadequacy of the left-right one-dimensional spectrum in both politics and the church. It is also interesting that you link to Dana’s point about a landscape of clusters within the church. This reminds me of a survey that the Pew Research Center does every few years that actually classifies Americans politically into several groups based on shared beliefs. Here is a link to the most recent version: http://people-press.org/2011/05/04/beyond-red-vs-blue-the-political-typology/ There are nine different groupings in this version.
In our political system, there are structural factors that make a two-party system practically inevitable, and this contributes to political bipolarism (not the mental illness, although it might contribute to that too!). And you can see that the two-party system tends toward a homogenization of diverse political views. But this homogenization is not complete, and part of the purpose of the survey is to identify distinct groups that transcend the left-right dichotomy, and to show how the alignment of these groups affects the outcomes of elections. For example, the survey identifies three groups who do not strongly identify with either party who play a pivotal role in determining elections.
What I am getting around to is that it would be interesting to have a similar survey of the Catholic Church in the US. Could we identify distinct groupings of Catholics that defy the easy dichotomy of left and right? Interestingly, as far as I know there do not exist structural factors within the Catholic Church that would contribute to bipolarism in the same way as in politics. Is the bipolarism that we see simply the result of political identities trumping ecclesial identity? I think there is a lot of evidence that is the case, and that is also a large reason many people are turned away by the Catholic Church, not to mention other Christian communities.
Matt – I think this is one of my concerns in the current ways we discuss polarities – that Catholic identity has indeed been subsumed by political identities. I think this is exacerbated by the frenzy about “how to vote” and I wonder what would happen if instead of focusing on “how” Catholics should vote, we focused instead in the pulpit on Catholic identity. I think, indeed, that the USCCB had that latter point as its focus in its Faithful Citizenship pamphlet (as I think does the more general Vatican statement on voting) – but the very fact that groups of Catholics (each claiming to be the legitimate true authority) put out their own pamphlets that rather directly contrasted the bishops’ statement is itself suggestive of how we Catholics understood our identity in terms of how we voted. “True Catholics can only vote “x,y,z” way” ends up seriously undermining Catholic identity in exactly the ways I think the authors of the pamphlets would NOT want, precisely because of overidentification with American poltiical parties. Where I think this would be most telling is if we were to compare, say, American answers to the question “Which political party should Catholics belong to” with, say, German answers to the same.
Thanks for all the comments so far! Here is a comment from Kevin Ahern at Daily Theology that was apparently not able to be posted:
Again, I want to thank you for your critical commitment to exchange, conversation, and dialogue. Thank you for the link here to my first public blog post.
In proposing that we rethink the polarization, I was not in any way trying to suggest that we merely replace one set of unhelpful binaries with another. By proposing an alterative way to look at the current landscape, I was trying to show that the issues are far more complex than any “two-dimensional thinking” might offer.
I was merely trying to offer other descriptive categories to help us understand the complex community that is called Church. I can see how the post could have been read in that way, and I hope this offers a clear statement that I am not supporting simplistic binary poles.
My primary point, however, is to remind us (even those of us committed to conversation) about the temptations to pride and despair drawing from a Thomistic virtue framework (which itself is limited).
Working off of my own previous writing and research on Thomas’ understanding of magnanimity and humility, I believe the main dangers we face in charting a course for the journey of conversation are in the many different manifestations of pride, despair, and fear—manifestations that transcend the traditional binary of liberal/conservative.
I simply cannot imagine any conversation taking place without humility, hope, and magnanimity. And if we want that, we need to avoid the personal and communal vices of pride, fear, and despair.
Good luck to all with the start of the semester!
Posted by Kevin J. Ahern | August 31, 2011, 1:45 pm