Healing the Discourse

Last week, contributor Tim Burns wrote a column titled, “Hurricane Donald, Hurricane Bob” in which he argued that “political discourse has suffered in the past two years.” And I agree with him. But it’s more than just the discourse that’s ailing-- I feel like we all are. So much of my emotional energy during the Trump administration thus far has been spent not on engagement with the issues, or on productive activism, or on maintaining rigor in my conversations and arguments. On most days, I exhaust my emotional resources merely trying to preserve my humanity.

That sounds dramatic, but I can feel myself becoming an uglier person. It requires focus and effort to live out my principles, because suddenly it is far too easy to loathe those people with whom I disagree. I have to constantly remind myself that hate is a burden I don’t want to carry. There are plenty of buzzwords I could use to describe this situation-- our politics are too polarized, too partisan. I don’t know how having shared political views became a prerequisite to having a shared humanity. To exist in a world where that is the case is quite literally dehumanizing, and it’s depressing, and it’s tiring. So I’ve been trying to practice love, and empathy, and to remind myself that I may never understand the journey that led some people to see the world so differently than I see it.

I want to avoid falling into two traps here. First, I don’t mean to trivialize the very real differences between the platforms of the two main parties in American politics. If you’re liberal, like me, you probably find many right-wing policies at best, objectionable and at worst, actively harmful and potentially evil. I understand-- the disagreements are stark and consequential. Second, hippy platitudes like “just practice love” are not particularly substantive, and I don’t want to circumvent tough conversations with catchphrase Band-Aids.

Here’s the thing, though: I genuinely believe we can fix the broken discourse that both Tim and I (and many others) bemoan. Tim’s solution, broadly, is to take a page from Sandra Day O’ Conner’s book, and make our arguments more attractive. How you say something, Tim contends, is just as important as what you’re saying. I love the aesthetics of language-- a well-constructed sentence can make me swoon sooner than a man can. But reading Tim’s column triggered a memory in me, which led me away from his heuristic conclusion.

In all honesty, I’ve likely forgotten more than I remember from college. But I was a double-major in history and political theory, and there’s one political philosopher who has stuck with me for years: Jürgen Habermas.

Just writing his name is flirting with pretension, and I won’t waste words trying to deconstruct his incredibly dense philosophy. But I spent six weeks during undergrad reading his magnum opus, Between Facts and Norms, a 700-page behemoth whose central point can be distilled down to this: in a modern pluralistic society (such as the United States), absolutely all norms derive their legitimacy from democratic discussion.

This sounds idealistic, but Habermas’ work resonates, because it advocates for features of discourse that I think our current political discourse lacks. Habermas says that deliberation cannot be successful if the group of deliberators is not representative-- if some groups or interests are barred from participating in the democratic system. He says conversations must be rational, rather than argued from a place of emotion or morality.

But most importantly: Habermas says that deliberative democracy is only successful if claims are made in a way that is accessible and meaningful to everyone in the discussion. Those participating need to come to the table with common vocabulary, values and rules-- otherwise, how can they possibly argue? And how can they possibly agree?

The key, I think, to slowly healing our discourse, is not aesthetic-- it is structural, and it is semantic. Maybe we’re not all defining “the public good” in the same way; maybe we don’t know what we mean when we say “national security” or “reform” or “regulation” or “equality.” That’s okay-- but  in political discussions, it helps to start with a common set of assumptions. To remember, first, our shared humanity, and to go from there.