Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Complexity and Civil Discourse

Over at Flyover, there is a great article from the Charleston City Paper entitled "The Partisan Imagination: Does Being an Artist Make You a Liberal?" What I appreciate most about the article, in addition to its quoting from Martha Nussbaums' inspiring book Cultivating Humanity, is that it at least somewhat respects the complexity of the question. It doesn't answer yes or no, either-or, but rather maybe-and. he author weighs different viewpoints, and gives credence to those ideas that resist the desire to simplify the issue to melodramatic poles. The last line points to another facet of the subject, another viewpoint yet to be considered.  Would there were more such thoughtful articles in newspapers or here in the theatrosphere.

Much of my dissertation involved studying the writings of Lionel Trilling, an important literary critic who wrote for The Partisan Review from the 1930s through the 1960s. It is from him that I learned to appreciate complexity. Complexity does not mean obscurity, but rather an appreciation of the fact that most questions worth discussing are multi-faceted.

Our society has become addicted to simple-minded melodrama. From our entertainment to our political discourse, we regularly choose the extreme over the measured, the fight over the discussion, the war over diplomacy. Throughout the presidential campaign, the media continually cried out that it was necessary for Obama to take a few swings at McCain, to deliver a "knockout punch," to get more aggressive. To his credit, Obama resisted those calls, because his vision for America is based not only on bi-partisanship, but on a recognition that issues are complex, and demand a thoughtful, measured process and response. Even now, as Obama prepares his transition to the Presidency, websites like Daily Kos (which I read compulsively throughout the campaign) is claiming that it wasn't Obama's stated values that won the campaign, but rather the Kossacks who went after McCain and Palin whenever they threw garbage his way. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is as Wallace Shawn said in Aunt Dan and Lemon, that our kindness and empathy relies on someone like Henry Kissinger to do the dirty work for us.

But now that the challenger has been vanquished, it is time to put aside our weapons and help Obama in his attempt to create a different society, one that focuses on points of commonality not points of conflict, one that focuses on civil dialogue not polarized shouting matches, one that recognizes complexity rather than pretends to a simplicity that doesn't exist. This requires restraint. It requires us to give up the buzz afforded by killing dragons.  For there are very few dragons, but there are many, many complex problems that require the insights and considerations of multiple perspectives.

I am a lifelong Democrat, and during my 32 years of voting I have seen my candidates win and I've seen them lose. But never have I felt such a sense of personal hope as when Obama won. And that hope is based not just in a changing of the guard, an unseating of the Republican leadership that has taken us down so many despicable pathways -- I would not have felt the same way had Hilary Clinton been elected instead of Obama, although I would have felt some measure of relief nonetheless. Rather, the intensity of my hope, which seems to be shared by so many people worldwide, is based on something in Obama's character, something is his way of being, something in his grace, his civility, his discipline, his passionate open-mindedness. The President can set a tone, can call on our better angels, can remind us of what we are in our best moments rather than our worst. And he does that not only by what he does, but just as importantly by how he does it.

As a society, we are hooked on the political crack that is partisan conflict.  It is my fervent hope that Obama can take us through rehab, break our adrenaline addiction, and restore us to calm, thoughtful, civil thinking and discourse.
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Ben Turk said...

America isn't hooked on partisan conflict, it's hooked on short term profits from irresponsibile business practices. It's hooked on oil, and you're investing all this intense hope in someone who is ultimately just another dealer.


Scott Walters said...

Yeah yeah, whatever.

Tony Adams said...

I don't know. I agree on the need for civil discourse, but I think it's also helpful to remember that it is a pretty recent concept (in action.)

The First amendment was on the books, for what, 150 years before it actually began to be protected by the courts and police (sometimes). We have different tools to shout down other now but the action isn't all that different than mobs of old.

I know just as many closed-minded individuals on the left as on the right. However, this is not something new in the last couple of years.

Which to me just means, we need to work even harder at it.

Anonymous said...


How does one define liberal? The term itself is often used in a very broad an general way--so broad that it doesn't really mean anything. "Liberal" is applied in a manner similar to the Supreme Court's past rulings on the definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

The article you linked to in your post clams that many artists identify themselves as liberal because the arts are rooted in empathy. Yet it doesn't full illuminate how this very general notion of empathy translates into specific beliefs, practices, political affiliations, etc..

Are there, for instance, positions on social issues that would exclude someone from such a designation?

I would also remind that, historically, the white liberal interest in empathy is rooted in a kind of violence itself. As Sadiya Hartman points out in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America, white empathy is violent insorfar as it evacuates the presence of the "other" and ends up privileging and valorizing the suffering of the person doing the empathizing.

In Hartman's discussion of radical 19th Century abolitionists she finds that "empathy" was a key tool by which progressive audiences could be convinced of the horrors of slavery. In abolitionist literature, this involved narratives that asked spectators or readers to imagine and empathize with another's pain. She poses what I think is a provocative question: "by making the suffering of others his own...had {the reader} ameliorated indifference or only confirmed the difficulty of understanding the suffering of the enslaved? Can the white witness of spectacles of suffering affirm the materiality of black sentience only by feeling for himself?" Within this framework the author then wonder if those who empathize, "become a proxy and the other's pain is acknowledged to the degree that it can be imagined, yet by virtue of the substitution the object of identification threatens to disappear."

Just a few things to think about...


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