Open Thread 3: Thanksgiving Edition

The prompt for this thread comes from a conversation between the executive director of The Progress Network (bias alert: I work with her and The Progress Network) and the philosopher Robert B. Talisse (who is a member of The Progress Network). In the discussion, they speak about what can be done to better manage belief polarization and partisan animosity. Talisse says:

I think the solution can’t be “eliminate polarization.” I don’t think that there is a way to do that, because like-minded coalitions are intrinsic to what democracy is all about. Instead we have to figure out ways to manage the most destructive effects of belief polarization. I don’t think we can do it only by having more carefully curated and orchestrated interactions with our political enemies. A lot of empirically minded democratic theorists are interested in designing deliberative spaces and citizen jury experiments for that purpose. I don’t reject any of that. I just think it’s insufficient, because I think that the change has to be within ourselves. We have to take steps to fight the tendency toward conformity within our allyships.

The way that we do that is that we take steps to make sure that we expose ourselves to ideas and arguments and political problems that don’t come pre-packaged in the trappings of the politics of the moment and the partisan divides that prevail right now. Democracy needs citizens to claim for themselves moments of solitude, solitary reflection, detachment, where they don’t withdraw from politics, but they withdraw from the political fray, from their friends and their enemies alike, and reflect about political ideas and arguments that are not so easily imported into things that are happening right now. 

If you google “This is what democracy looks like,” you will get tens of thousands of images all depicting the very same thing. People in streets with signs, communicating a unified message of some kind, making a demand, pointing out an injustice. That is what democracy looks like. I don’t want to say that that is not part of democracy—that is what democracy looks like. But democracy also looks like a guy sitting in a chair, reading a book. That is also an essential act of democratic citizenship, opening up Aristotle and seeing how Aristotle thinks there are eight different kinds of democracy. What is he talking about? Eight different kinds of democracy? What does that mean? 

Talisse goes on to speak about the utility of doing this kind of “detached reflection.” The first benefit, he says, is that it takes us out of what’s happening at the moment. It gives us a bigger-picture view, one beyond, say, the verdict in a recent high-profile trial. The second benefit is that it allows us, when we do have political discussions, to explain all the ways we’ve thought about the issue and why we think what we think, without trying to convince the other person that they’re wrong. Instead, he says, we can ask questions that might improve our own view, e.g., “Where do you think I’ve gone wrong? What’s the weakest part of my view? Where do you think my position is objectionable?” He concludes this part of the conversation with the thoughts below:

That allows you to remind yourself of the idea, that I think gets lost with the polarization phenomenon and the drive of this urgency to act, that even if you’re on the right side of all the political questions, it doesn’t mean that your political thinking can’t be improved. Even if you’re right about all the issues, there still might be a better way to formulate your position. There still might be an objection that you have to figure out a way to evade. It’s a philosopher’s thought. Epistemic success is not strictly about having the right beliefs. It’s about having the right beliefs with the right kind of rationale to back it up. 

All of this resonates very much with me, but I can’t dismiss the fact that that’s partly (largely?) because he’s confirming things I already believed. If he’d said the solution was to get more tribal and push our beliefs even harder on our political “opponents,” I’d probably have been less receptive to that. And it’s highly unlikely I’d be sharing such sentiments with you here. (Maybe I should be doing more of that, though. Maybe I should be considering and highlighting the things I disagree with, framing them in their best possible light, and then engaging in more of those contemplations and discussions.)

In any event, my questions to you, whether you agree with my agreement with Talisse or not, are: Where do you think I’ve gone wrong? What’s the weakest part of my view? Where do you think my position is objectionable?

Happy Thanksgiving.