DRMacIver's Notebook

Conversations in a public

Conversations in a public

From Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience by Thomas F. Green, page 164:

What I object to, in short, is not a hermeneutic of suspicion, but an entirely different thing that I believe we have created, namely a culture of suspicion, a culture of public speech in which it is simply assumed that because of role or position, because of the partiality or brokenness of reason, nothing any of us says can be entertainedat face value. […] If I adopt that attitude, or if you adopt it, then our joint membership in a public, yours and mine, has come to an end.

Well of course Green would say this, he’s a philosopher. Honestly.


I’ve largely avoided rereading the later chapters of Voices, where he talks about democracy and public speech, because I find it depressing how far from reality the ideal he’s describing is.

A thing I’ve found myself increasingly aware of is that expecting norms of honest inquiry to occur in public feels naive. I don’t think this is something where the good old days were especially good, but it does feel like something that has gone from bad to worse over my lifetime. It’s popular - and probably not entirely unfair - to blame social media, but the mainstream media is at least equally to blame.

There are plenty of other people we can blame. The left will blame capitalism (it’s the result of market incentives manipulating us this way), the right will blame identity politics (it’s the result of people privileging identity and emotion over universal objective rational understanding of the world), probably everyone will blame political polarisation (sometimes without even meaning “too many people disagree with me”).

So some greater or lesser degree they’re probably all right - all of these things and more make it very hard to pursue inquiry together, because everyone is at each other’s throats.

My personal contribution to the list of reasons is morality tests as self-fulfilling prophecies - we are, at this stage, pretty primed to treat any political disagreement as a sign that the other person is our enemy, because our enemies will always disagree with us and our friends and allies have learned that it’s not worth the effort of disagreeing with us.

I find this very frustrating, because a) Almost everyone (myself included) is wrong about almost everything and b) All knowledge is connected so often the way to figure out your problem is to go talk to someone who is a nerd about a very different field.

To pick the least controversial example available to me, I’ve been reading a bunch of Christian philosophy and theology recently. Josef Pieper’s work is foundational in my Total Work series but is very Christian (Tobi’s review is a good place to get a sense of that). As a result there’s a lot we disagree on. Green himself was a Presbyterian, apparently quite a devout one, and a number of his philosophical commitments appear to be grounded in that.

Some of these disagreements are ones where we could probably talk them out and come to a more interesting synthesis. Some of them are probably ones where we will never agree and that’s mostly OK (I’m basically never going to agree with an opinion that ends “and therefore Jesus”). Even where we disagree, the discussion has the potential to be enlightening (possibly simply be forcing us to clarify our own position).

Some disagreements are rather more urgent than others of course. A lot of disagreemenets sound like “I need X to be safe” “You don’t deserve to be safe, so you can’t have X”. Unsurprisingly, these disagreements don’t go well.

Part of why they don’t go well is that they’re not the sort of thing that you can usually expect to agree on if you don’t already agree on them. They’re not really disagreements, they’re conflicts, and you need either a peace treaty or you’ll have a fight (possibly verbal, possibly more literal).

Right now there doesn’t seem to be any workable tools for getting to a peace treaty, certainly not without having a fight first, and this strikes me as a problem. My guess is that such tools have to start with assuming the possibility of a productive discussion, and that the culture of suspicion prevents us from assuming that possibility.

Green describes this as “our joint membership in a public, yours and mine, has come to an end”. He’s probably right, and I don’t know what to do about it.