Navigating a polarised world – perspectives on radical difference

Lots of people are currently thinking about how we might talk to each other differently, particularly when politics seems to have become so polarised, and what it is that gets in the way of our fully recognising each other. In an interesting article on what he terms ‘denialism’ in The Guardian the other week, Keith Kahn-Harris treats sociologically contestation over what we think to be true. Denialism goes beyond every day denial, of which we are all guilty, but is both ‘combative and extraordinary’, he says. In some ways, Kahn-Harris argues, denialists are like the rest of us: they just want the world to be the way they would like it to be, and to make actual sometimes unspeakable desires. However, where formally denialists tried to emulate the careful work that goes into making an argument that climate change is happening, in other words they spent time and energy building a careful argument, now we encounter post-denialists who might say one thing one day, and another the next. If you like, they feel no need to entertain science-envy by mimicking scientists’ methods, and can speak, like President Trump, off the top of their heads. This has an insidious effect of contributing to an environment where everything is contestable and no-one believable.

One of the interesting things Kahn-Harris does is to kick away the liberal myth that if denialists would stop denying we would necessarily share a common moral view:

‘Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly.’

He argues, nonetheless, that although empathy with denialists is not easy, it is necessary if we are to find a way through together. It is not enough just to think of our opponents as stupid or pathological, as this video, no matter how amusing, seems to suggest. The difficulty of locating all problems with one’s adversary is that it lets us off the hook.

It is this encounter with profound moral differences, and differences which may be irreconcilable, which put me in mind of Richard Bernstein, the pragmatic philosopher. Bernstein’s book The New Constellation contains a chapter entitled: Incommensurability and Otherness Revisited. In it, Bernstein explains why we may not understand each other, no matter how patiently we listen to each other, although this is no argument against continuing to try. The argument in the book is not aimed specifically at denialists, and certainly not at what Kahn-Harris calls post-denialists who may have no interest in building a systematic claim and becoming recognised, but simply in destabilising and unmooring things. It may be a bit of stretch to dignify post-denialists by calling their arguments a tradition, or a language, rather than an orientation which simply tries to undermine every one else’s tradition. Nonetheless, I summarise here nine points he makes on pp65-66 for what it might add to the discussion about our encounters with the radically other, and to find ways of bringing ourselves into the discussion rather than just blaming the other:

1 Recent controversies in philosophy have seriously challenged the accepted orthodoxy that there is a universal, neutral, ahistorical framework in which all languages, or ‘vocabularies’ (we might say points of view) can be adequately translated so that we can evaluate different validity claims.

Kahn-Harris makes a similar point that orthodox science can sometimes be dogmatic and blind to its own limitations. To make an argument simply on ‘the facts’ is never going to cut it. Will Davies says something in his recent book Nervous States, where he argues that statistics and facts arguing that on average we are better off will fail to resonate with the local, contextual and non-average experience of communities who have failed to do so. For those who feel excluded, more rational arguments by experts may feel colonising

2 This is not the same as saying that anything goes, and it’s your point of view against my point of view.

As a pragmatist, Bernstein does not accept what might loosely be considered a ‘post-modern’ view that all opinions are equally valid. For a pragmatist some points of view are more helpful than others. This still leaves questions open about how we establish usefulness, particularly when the pragmatic position, that we do so in a community of engaged inquirers, is unlikely to be accepted by a post-denialists. In current debates sometimes groups claim that this truth is truth for us, irrespective of what anyone else thinks.

3 We can evaluate different claims but using a variety of methods and with hermeneutic sensitivity and imagination.

In a previous post on this site I wrote about how the biologist Richard Dawkins had argued that the referendum in the UK on whether to leave the EU should only have been conducted on ‘the facts’ alone. I noted that this would have been a difficult undertaking given how much of the political contestation revolved around questions of identity and themes of inclusion and exclusion. There were few available facts about a proposal to withdraw from the EU which had never been attempted before by any other country. More evaluative methods were required by all of those involved in the debate than the simple finding of facts.

4 There are overlaps in different interpretations of the world.

I think Kahn-Harris makes this case well when he points to the idea that we all deny the obvious, and may all entertain desires which cause us shame, whether we consider ourselves denialists or not. The experience of desire is shared, though the object of desire is plural and may also be of a morally repugnant nature.

5 But we may have to face the practical possibility that we may fail to understand ‘alien’ traditions in terms of the tradition to which we belong. This possibility of failure places an ethical obligation on us to listen carefully, but in doing so we must not recategorize what we hear in terms of what we already understand without doing justice to what is genuinely different in what’s being said. We should neither colonize it (‘they agree with us, they just don’t know it’) nor dismiss it as exotic nonsense.

I think Richard Kearney makes a similar suggestion about the importance of standing one’s ground, but at the same time being radically open to the otherness of the other. It is too easy to fall into monstering those we disagree with, even though their point of view may be monstrous. Linking back to point three, Kearney terms his method diacritical hermeneutics. I would also add a caveat even if one concludes that other points of view are exotic nonsense this should not block further inquiry as to the role this particular nonsense plays for the person entertaining it.

7 Within a given language or tradition people are already making claims which transcend their context.

Even the idea that there is an elite conspiracy of experts, big government, big pharma, neoliberal politicians, who set out to cheat ‘the people’ is more than just a local claim and may be something to work with.

8 We must avoid essentialism about our own traditions and about other people’s.

9 Learning to live with pluralistic incommensurable traditions is one of the most pressing problems of our age. An informed, textured understanding of another’s tradition helps us to understand our own traditions better. An encounter with what is alien (even in ourselves) helps us with better self-understanding.

Perhaps the first part of point 8 and the injunction in 9 to understand the limitations of our own positions may be the most important aspect of what Bernstein points to. An essentialist understanding of the dilemmas which currently face us is that ‘they’, denialists or people we oppose, are responsible for stirring up hatred, xenophobia and calling into question obvious facts which make us unsafe. This lets us off too lightly. If all situations are co-created, irrespective of whether the responsibility is equal or not, then one of the first things to think about is our own role in how we come to be in the situation we find ourselves in.




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