Saturday, September 19, 2009

Don't Demonize Difference of Opinion

The Washington Post's "On Faith" panelists are weighing in on the issue of civility this week. Here is the paragraph provided by "On Faith" to launch the discussion:

State of Our Disunion

In his prayer at the Inauguration, pastor Rick Warren said, "As we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ."

Since then, clarity, responsibility, humility and civility seem to have given way to self-righteousness, anger, resentment, and what columnist Kathleen Parker calls "a political era of uninhibited belligerence" that is finding expression in sermons, at town hall meetings, on radio talk shows, even on the floor of Congress -- especially when we differ.

Why are people so angry and belligerent, and so willing to express their anger publicly? Why has our civil discourse become so uncivil? What does this public anger say about our private faith? What should we do about it? (You can read what all the panelists are saying here)

My thought is that what we are witnessing is the inevitable fruit of the discourse of disunity which I described in a previous post:

A basic assumption that seems to have taken hold in popular discourse about social problems in America is that every issue can be boiled down to view A and “contrasting” view B. Another assumption is that the only possible positions available for people is to be either “for” view A or “for” view B. This is exemplified in the way that the media structures the discourse on social problems, one talking head represents view A and another talking head represents view B and they argue with each other (often loudly). This perpetuates a kind of bi-polar perspective on reality where there are only two sides to any issue and only one of those sides can ultimately prevail. I refer to this as the discourse of disunity. Long term exposure to this kind of discourse tends to narrow the mind and harden the heart. Sadly, a virtual disunity industry keeps the population in a perpetual state of polarization. This may help people win elections and keep the pundits well paid, but it is useless as far as finding real solutions to the challenges facing the United States. (Read the whole post here)

One sign that you are hearing the discourse of disunity is the tendency of the speaker to demonize those who disagree with them. Their argument stops being about the merits or demerits of ideas and becomes focused on the character or motives of others. It's important to note that this tendency can be found across the political spectrum and on all sides of the current debates roiling the country. Speaking in this way I believe, is due to a failure to appreciate that the 'goodness' or 'badness' of a person's ideas is not necessarily a reflection of the 'goodness' or 'badness' of the person. Demonizing difference of opinion could be seen as a politicized version of fault-finding, a bad habit that is discouraged in Baha'i teaching:

"It is my hope that you may consider this matter, that you may search out your own imperfections and not think of the imperfections of anybody else. Strive with all your power to be free from imperfections. Heedless souls are always seeking faults in others." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 244)

Another problem with demonizing difference of opinion is the failure to recognize that diverse viewpoints are actually necessary for finding the truth. What 'Abdu'l-Baha wrote regarding consultation among members of Spiritual Assemblies (local governing councils of a Baha'i community) is worth considering regarding public discourse generally:

"The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 87)

We need to stop hurling the epithets, "liar", "racist", "nazi", "socialist" etc. around not only because they are uncivil but because they are epistemologically unhelpful. The truth remains hidden in the presence of the discourse of disunity and without it we cannot possibly have sound policies.

"In order to find truth we must give up our prejudices, our own small trivial notions; an open receptive mind is essential. If our chalice is full of self, there is no room in it for the water of life. The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one." (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 136)