Overview We live in a polarized landscape littered by taunts, sound bites, and propaganda about a growing number of hot-button issues. By analogy with racism, you could say that we are in the grips of “polarism.” Just as the racist never sees his or her own racism as a problem, we fail to see our polarism as a problem. On the contrary, we proudly parade our dismissiveness of others as a badge of enlightenment.
Our polarism is non-partisan, afflicting both the left and the right. It undermines conversation about abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, embryonic stem cell research, terrorism, Islam, and other topics. In the process, opponents who share little else share views about freedom as autonomy and enlightenment, even as their polarism endangers freedom. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we need to think about freedom in a new way. Rather than seeing it as something we gain by being left alone (autonomy) or by comprehending what is most important (enlightenment), we need to see it as something that we create together moment by moment. Right now we are especially in need of a concept of freedom according to which we are freer the more we are able to see from the perspectives of others and take action in a world codetermined by them.
This book extends the conversation begun in Freedom and Dialogue in a Polarized World (U Delaware Press, 2014) to a wide variety of polarizing issues.
Chapter Summaries, Detoxing Diologue in a Polarized World
1: Why We Need a New Concept of Freedom Most people think about freedom in terms of rights or enlightenment. This tendency promotes polarization and undermines the very freedom we seek to protect. We need a new concept of “dialogic freedom: a two-sided act chosen within a field of forces for unity and chaos along a continuum of perspectives which are never final.” With examples from daily life, I explain this definition and show how dialogic freedom can help remedy the “polarism” that afflicts both the right and the left.
2: Abortion Both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” advocates share a preoccupation with rights and presume than an enlightened person values those rights. They both see the battle as being won or lost in the election booth, the legislature, and the courtroom. These shared views promote polarization by encouraging both sides to dismiss each other as unenlightened. They also erode the very freedoms that they seek to protect. By thinking in terms of dialogic freedom we can reverse these damaging effects as we consider how best to confront the moral issues related to abortion.
3: Gay Marriage Debates about gay marriage generally focus on the rights of same sex couples to marry, vs, the rights of citizens to pass laws about who can and cannot marry. Advocates of gay marriage spurn opponents as unenlightened, homophobic bigots, while opponents of gay marriage consider equally unenlightened those who fail to respect the sanctity of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. As in the abortion debate, the fixation on rights and enlightenment promotes polarization and undermines the prospects for dialogic freedom.
4: Voluntary and Involuntary Death Like debates about gay marriage and abortion, debates about capital punishment and controversies over Assisted Suicide vs. Death with Dignity are undermined by our views about freedom as rights and enlightenment. The concept of dialogic freedom fosters productive discussion about voluntary and involuntary death by helping us seek common ground for confronting the moral issues involved.
5: Embryonic Stem Cell Research Passions run high in discussions of the ethical and scientific issues connected to embryonic stem cell research. From the perspective of dialogic freedom, the most problematic and promising areas of research can be most productively discussed when everyone knows as much as possible about what is actually being proposed. The average citizen’s barriers to understanding scientific research present a challenge not just to scientists who seek permission and funding for their activities, but to the citizens who must decide whether or not to allow them to proceed.
6: Terrorism and Islam For too many American citizens, terrorism and Islam have become synonymous. From the perspective of dialogic freedom, we can explore the benefits of understanding what a terrorist might be thinking and how practitioners of Islam might approach thinking about the role of religion in political life. This chapter explores homegrown acts of American terrorism as well as accounts of suicide bombings abroad. Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening provides another perspective on activities that at first glance seem alien.
7: Dialogic Freedom Close to Home Potential remedies to polarism already exist within the current institutions and opportunities in our own communities, from schools, newspapers, and the internet, to city councils, service organizations, churches, non-profits, and a host of other activities. Alexis de Tocqueville called voluntary associations “schools for freedom” and saw them as the antidote to individualism. I argue that they are schools for dialogic freedom.
8: Dialogic Freedom in the World On the national and international level it is more difficult to have a direct voice in conversations with others and a direct role in coauthored action. Yet even on these levels, institutions in the media, organizations for information sharing on and off-line, mechanisms of governance, and NGOs hold potential for helping us move beyond polarism. Congressional dysfunction, the challenges of global warming and the debate about the future of the United Nations present opportunities to enhance dialogic freedom nationally and worldwide.
9: Beyond Polarism Polarism has brought us to the divisive present. We can move beyond this culture of dismissiveness--locally, nationally, and internationally--by encouraging all people to consider themselves freer the better able they are to see things from the perspectives of others and take action in a world codetermined by them. We need to regard this interest in others not as proof of our own generosity, or as a strategy to help us win, but rather as a way to enhance our own abilities to make the most of our lives. Cultivating our dialogic freedom can help us confront the moral dilemmas of the future and coauthor, if not solutions, then a better understanding of why we disagree.