That Moment Between "So Crazy Right Now" and a Phil Collins Song I'd Never Heard

A couple weeks ago, I was at a wedding with my wife. We were sitting next to a good friend that we hadn’t seen in quite some time. She’s a bookworm, genuinely brilliant, and – in all the best ways – a truly odd human being. For some reason we were on the topic of “moral relativism” (and by “we” I mean mostly “she”).

She was talking about how hard it was to accept that people could have truly different value systems and that each one was “right” to its respective proponent even when the value systems were mutually antagonistic. I had never really thought about it, but in that moment, between the end of “So Crazy Right Now” and the beginning a Phil Collins song I’d never heard, I told her that I didn’t think that was the case.

Obviously it’s a complex and loaded conversation but I told her that I think there are things that are objectively right and wrong but that they were much larger concepts than people typically talk about, far fewer than people might like to accept, and live much deeper than people generally care to dig. Things like the inherent equality and presumed dignity of all people. Truly big things. There are people who don’t feel that others deserve dignity or are inherently equal. Those are people with whom I cannot have a productive conversation. I think that I can find some small but productive common ground with just about everyone else.

Last week, Tim Burns wrote a short piece about the shit fights that our current Commander in Chief seems to instigate or wade into voluntarily at every opportunity. He tied this to a larger trend in politics that he traces back to 2004 (I think he’s being modest with that timeline, but that’s neither here nor there). More importantly, however, he implied a sort of mutually reinforcing relationship between the depressing disrepair of civic discourse and the polarization of politics. Not just that progressively more extreme opinions make it harder to have real conversations, but that our inability to have conversations, in turn, divides us further and pushes us to more extreme positions. That in turn makes us even less capable of productive conversation.

Ashley Spinks replied to Tim’s piece by agreeing, but tracing the brokenness of our politics to something even more fundamental. Citing German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, she 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."

I think she is absolutely correct. But the implication is that, in the real world, we’re not able to remember that shared humanity. More even than that, there is a small but significant minority that does not even believe in any shared humanity. Where does that leave us? How do we start? I think that’s where Tim comes in.

Tim is talking less about values and more about how to get to the point where we can even identify that sort of fundamental common ground. His solution is just to assume that common humanity and at least those most basic of shared values. To come into a conversation with the simple assumption that it will be productive. I’m quite sure that he’s not naive enough to think that the conversation will always be productive or even that he’ll find that common morality at the end of the endeavor. The value in his approach is that he simply sets out and gives himself the opportunity to discover otherwise.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell argues that poor language and foolish speech are not simply products of ignorance or silly, jumbled thinking. He argues that poor language, in turn, causes sloppy thought. Orwell takes that argument to its logical conclusion by suggesting that repairing language will have as great an impact on the quality of our thinking as deepening our thoughts will have on the quality of our language.

Tim argues something similar about the relationship between our conversations and our political ideas. While Ashley argues that remembering our shared humanity will help us to have more productive debates, Tim argues that simply holding our noses and doing everything we can to have civil conversations will put us in a much better position to find out where (or if) we are able to find that shared humanity. They’re obviously both right.