What Is At Stake In Political Discourse

Our world is one in which uncertainty is not tolerated, especially concerning political issues.  To be ambivalent about abortion is not seen as carefully weighing the different arguments for being pro-life or pro-choice, it is seen as an almost absurd show of weakness.  This climate of isolating oneself and only making community with those who have similar values has gotten so bad that it is no longer enough to say that someone on the other side of the aisle sees the world differently than me — I am instead provided a host of adjectives that render that other person barely human.

I want to see a return to a political discourse in which we can respectfully disagree with others, making community across any difference of opinion and championing uncertainty, especially concerning political issues.  To do so, it would be prudent to consider what is at stake in holding fast to the positions that we take.  It is not enough to note just how shaped all of our opinions are by our unique upbringing, societal context, and personality.  Even though both nature and nurture are completely out of our control, they play the decisive role in determining our political positions.  However, such theoretical understanding of our deep subjectivity does not improve the political discourse on our news shows and between and among our political leaders.  In order to do that, we must paint vivid pictures, tell gripping narratives, that will take root in people’s hearts and minds, underscoring just how important our ideologies are, and how respectfully we ought to treat others, even when we find their positions abominable by our own lights.

An exceptionally helpful narrative in which to consider this problem is provided by Neil Gillman in his book Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew.  Gillman speaks about each and every community’s dependence on metaphors and myths, like that of how both the world and the Israelite community were formed, as recounted in Genesis and Exodus, respectively.  Gillman argues:

Cosmic metaphors of this kind share many of the qualities we earlier ascribed to a community’s myth.  In fact, a myth should be understood as a literary rendition of the community’s metaphor.  The metaphor itself has a more pictorial quality; it is more the result of ‘seeing’…But as we have seen, neither myths nor their underlying metaphors are fictions.  They emerge out of a community’s most primitive confrontation with the world.  They carry their own distinctive kind of truth, for they have been verified many times over, as witnessed by the community’s continued vitality through centuries.  They are ‘true’ because they have enabled the community to maintain its integrity and its members to live satisfying and fulfilling lives…The community will cling to its picture of the world, come what may, for what is at stake is the community’s very existence. (122-123)

For me, the final sentence really hits home.  Being trained in Western Philosophy, I feel that I gained an appreciation for just how fragile a person can be if they allow themselves to grapple with — and potentially abandon — a central part of who they thought they were.  Watching CNN, or reading the New York Times, however, one would think that we ought to accord as much respect to our positions on healthcare and taxation as we do to which football team we root for on Sundays.  While the sports team we root for, and our position on the proper place of government in our society, are both determined largely by factors out of our control, we understand them in a completely different way.  Moving cities can easily morph into rooting for a different team.  Not so with our political beliefs.  It is precisely because we think of our political beliefs as being so much more a part of who we are that we must accord them that respect.  If we can all understand the trauma experienced by those who endured forced conversions as having constituted a threat to their identity, we can also think of attacks on our core beliefs in a similar vein.

This does not mean that quelling political discourse and operating solely by a ‘live and let live’ ethic is the goal.  Given what is at stake in how our governments legislate on a host of issues, these discussions must continue — but they must become more respectful.  For them to be productive, however, each of us must cultivate an ethic that prioritizes respect for each other over any specific view held.  We must meet our discussion partners where they are at, and not where we wish they were.  It is only when the assumption is that two parties to a political debate are more concerned with upholding each other’s dignity than destroying each other’s conception of the world that we can hope to have impassioned debates in which the goal is not to score political points, but to share, earnestly, how important a given value or worldview is.  We need to be able to hear each other’s political convictions for what they are, and not express our views as being wholly indifferent to the values upheld by our interlocutors.  To be pro-choice is not to disregard to sacredness of a human fetus, and to be pro-life is not to disregard the importance of a woman’s ability to have control over her body.  To be ‘pro-Palestinian’ is not to disregard the importance of a safe and secure Israel.  To be ‘pro-Israeli’ is not to believe that Palestinians have any less of a right to a state of their own than Israelis do.  These dichotomies distract from the real conversations that need to take place.  Labelling, especially in these two cases, highlights the analogy to sports.  We are all people, each caring deeply about our integrity and our ability to “live satisfying and fulfilling lives,” nothing more and nothing less.

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