207. Reducing polarization, demonization, and a lack of civility in America, part 2

In the last post (go here) we saw what President Biden meant by unity in his inauguration speech, how his call for unity led to widespread criticism, and how there is evidence of Americans seeing each other as bad people rather than just people who hold views with which they strongly disagree. We also saw a plausible four-fold explanation for this trend toward character assassination and noted that, while the web reveals many prescriptions for overcoming widespread group polarization, demonization, and a lack of civility, they are often quite controversial and presuppose what we typically don’t have, namely, the ability to engage in genuine dialogue with each other. So in this post I will offer three philosophical strategies that might help us regain the capacity to have dialogue with each other. The hope is that, once this capacity is regained to an extent, some of the pressing issues we face can at least be genuinely discussed with some mutual good will. Our first strategy is:

(1) Engage in shared activities that have nothing to do with politics. This can cultivate the good will needed to have productive political discussions.

Philosopher Robert B. Talisse, in his book Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place (Oxford, 2019), argues that, while democracy is indeed something to be valued, it is also possible to overdo it just as we can overdo other valuable things in life like, for example, exercise. The point of exercise is typically not exercise itself; it is to stay healthy, lose weight, have fun, do well in a sport, and so on. And exercise pursued in a healthy way doesn’t undermine other goods in life like family time, friends, and hobbies. Indeed, pursuing exercise all the time, far from making one healthy, can make one socially, psychologically, and even physically unhealthy. Likewise, if all we do is politics – if every aspect of our lives becomes politicized and we can’t see our relations with others in any other way – then we overdo democracy. Some may wish to argue that everything is indeed political. But Talisse points out that this view is problematic since it makes politics unintelligible. After all, if everything is politics then, when we seek to understand politics, there is nothing non-political we can turn to for an explanation: we end up trying to explain politics with the very thing that needs explaining. More importantly, he argues that the view that everything is politics doesn’t sit well with the obvious fact that democracy is for something, namely, the cultivation of various non-political goods (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for example). Talisse argues that overdoing democracy leads our deliberative communities, which are essential to the flourishing of our social lives and our democratic ideal of self-government among social equals, to disintegrate. And this disintegration shows that doing democracy all the time, far from providing a solution to our problems, destroys the non-political goods it is meant to secure: it is tragically self-defeating.

Talisse offers a convincing diagnosis of how we came to this point which is akin to the one we saw in the previous post: the over-politicization of society leads people to self-select into like minded groups; this, in turn, leads to group polarization or the tendency of people to adopt more extreme versions of their beliefs after discussion in like-minded groups; this then leads people to demonize their opponents as extremists who are seen as immoral and not deserving of an equal say in our democracy; and this process ultimately results in political deadlock in government and a lack of civility in our everyday lives. But Talisse offers us a positive prescription as well: cultivate civic friendship or the habits and dispositions that help us engage in active inquiry with others – especially others with whom we radically and passionately disagree – and see them as equal sharers in political power. But, since any cultivation of such dispositions through further political channels would be self-defeating, the only other way is to cultivate civic friendship through activities that have nothing to do with politics. For example, by playing sports with others for the sake of fun and not politics then one can come to relate to others as people who are not reducible to their political affiliations. We all know what it is like to get to know people in ways that are apolitical and how, when subsequent political controversy do arise, we find we can talk to them – even if in a heated way – because we already relate to them in other ways. We see their complexity and are more likely to find points of contact with them. More importantly, we are more likely to see their humanity and extend some degree of respect to them. From this fertile apolitical soil the seeds of communication, even fruitful communication, may grow. See Talisse’s TEDx talk here.

(2) Adopt fallibilism which will help facilitate genuine shared inquiry and help us get closer to the truth. 

Now, let’s suppose we do have to engage with others politically. How might we proceed in a way that allows us to open up a space for civil communication rather than divisive demonization? One way is to adopt fallibilism or the view that no belief can be justified in a conclusive way. There are plenty of reasons to do so. Here are a few: our senses can be unreliable, our memories can be unreliable, and our reasoning can be fallacious. And even when our reasoning is not fallacious, most of it is inductive and thus can only establish at best a highly probable, rather than certain, conclusion. Moreover, we all know there world through limited perspectives. These perspectives are not only spatial and temporal; they are also economic, political, sexual, racial, etc. And very often they lead us to adopt false beliefs. But perhaps the best reason to adopt fallibilism is that it will help us keep an open mind, be humble, and stay motivated to seek truth with others.

Of course, all this should remind us of Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue Apology we learn that “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” Socrates was not an active, knowledgeable authority transferring information to passive people who are ignorant; rather, he developed a method of shared inquiry into the unknown in which all ideas are open to further discussion and refinement (see here for my overview of the Socratic Method). Of course, he quickly discovered that people’s desire to maintain an image of themselves as wise often prevents shared inquiry. Rather than drop their pretensions and engage in dialogue, many people would rather go on appearing to be wise instead of being wise. After all, our need for security runs deep and philosophical perplexity makes us insecure. But Socrates shows us that it is precisely be embracing our fallibility and perplexity that we can become more secure as we expose our ignorance and develop beliefs supported by better arguments.


Consider these passages from Plato’s dialogue Meno (read the whole dialogue here) where we see Meno’s ad hominem attacks fail to throw Socrates off the path of shared inquiry into the truth that flows from perplexity and humility rather than the desire to preserve one’s image and gain power:

Socrates: Starting over again from the beginning: what do you and your friend say virtue is?

Meno: Socrates, even before I met you, I heard others talk about how you are always completely perplexed about everything, and how you drag everyone else down into the same pit of perplexity. Now I think you have been bewitching and bewildering me. You’ve cast some spell over me, so now I’m completely at a loss. In fact, if you don’t mind me turning the whole business into a bit of a joke, on the inside you’re like one of those stingrays that paralyzes everything it touches; you look a bit like one, too – broad and flat. Anyway, now you’ve done it to me; both my mind and my tongue are completely numb. I’ve got no answer to give you. And yet I must have made a thousand speeches about virtue before now – in front of large audiences, too; but now I cannot even say what it is. I think you are wise not to sail away from Athens to live in some foreign city. Because if you behaved like this, as a stranger in a strange land, you would be driven out of town as an evil enchanter.

S: You are an unscrupulous rogue, Meno, and you nearly tricked me there. 

M: How is that, Socrates?

S: I know why you drew a picture of me.

M: Why do you think?

S: So that I would draw a picture of you in return. I know that all handsome men love to see pictures of themselves. They come off best that way – and I think images of beautiful people are beautiful, too; but, all the same, I won’t draw you a picture. And as to this stingray – if it paralyzes itself, while paralyzing everyone else, then I resemble it; otherwise, not. For I myself don’t have the answer when I reduce others to perplexity. I’m more perplexed than anyone, when I make everyone perplexed. So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps once upon a time you knew, before you met me, but now you certainly look like someone who is ignorant. Nevertheless, I want to put my head together with yours, Meno, so that we can figure out what this thing is.”

We should also think of the scientific method which is inherently fallible. The great scientist and educator Richard Feynman once pointed out (see the lecture here) that, while we can prove a scientific hypothesis wrong by showing how its implications are not borne out by experience and experiment, we can never prove a hypothesis definitely right. New evidence might come to light which shows that what we thought was true was not true at all or not as comprehensively true as we thought. Again, it is precisely the fallibility of the scientific method that is its strength: it encourages scientists to avoid dogmatism, enter into a community of inquiry, self-correct, and get closer to truth.

And philosopher John Stuart Mill famously appealed to fallibilism to justify freedom of thought and discussion. In On Liberty (1859) he wrote:

“Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood. And since there are few mental attributes more rare than that judicial faculty which can sit in intelligent judgment between two sides of a question, of which only one is represented by an advocate before it, truth has no chance but in proportion as every side of it, every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advocated as to be listened to.”

J.S. Mill by George Frederic Watts (1873)

And Mill argues we should listen to others since if we are fallible then it logically follows that those with whom we disagree may have the truth or have part of the truth. And even if they have no truth, by engaging in discussion with them we  come to better understand both their position and our own and come to passionately hold our ideas in ways that allow them to have a vital effect on our character.

In my previous post I listed some of the actions which President Biden noted could help cultivate unity, namely, seeing others as neighbors, treating others with dignity, being more tolerant, more civil, more sympathetic, and showing some humility. But suppose we ask: why adopt these actions and the character dispositions that support them? The foregoing gives us an answer: because we are fallible and can all benefit from shared inquiry marked by these characteristics. Perhaps we can try and be a bit more like Socrates – perplexed about the complexity of the issues that face us and interested in sharing inquiries with others – and more like scientists who are comfortable with doubt and know that they can never definitely prove something right. Of course, adopting fallibilism doesn’t mean we can’t champion a view and rigorously argue in defense of it. Being fallible is consistent with taking a view seriously and thinking you are right. But if we keep a sense of fallibility in mind then we can hope to avoid the dogmatism that tends to follow when, as Mill said, we only attend to our ideas and, as result, let them harden into prejudices. And an awareness of our fallibility gives us a good reason to avoid the group polarization dynamic that traps people in echo chambers that both exaggerate their own ideas and the ideas of those with whom they disagree. As we have seen, such exaggerations lead to demonizations that break down mutual respect and communication.

Once we have a commitment to fallibilism we can explore various suggestions for conducting fruitful and civil inquiry. I think Sidney Hook’s 1954 essay “Ethics of Controversy” outlines some helpful guidelines (see Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy and Freedom: The Essential Essays):

“(1) Nothing and no one is immune from criticism.

(2) Everyone involved in a controversy has an intellectual responsibility to inform himself of the available facts.

(3) Criticism should be directed first to policies, and against persons only when they are responsible for policies, and against their motives or purposes only when there is some independent evidence of their character.

(4) Because certain words are legally permissible, they are not therefore morally permissible.

(5) Before impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.

(6) Do not treat an opponent of a policy as if he were therefore a personal enemy of the country or a concealed enemy of democracy.

(7) Since a good cause may be defended by bad arguments, after answering the bad arguments for another’s position present positive evidence of your own.

(8) Do not hesitate to admit lack of knowledge or to suspend judgment if evidence is not decisive either way.

(9) Only in pure logic and mathematics, not in human affairs, can one demonstrate that something is strictly impossible.  Because something is logically possible, it is not therefore probable.  “It is impossible” is a preface to an irrelevant statement about human affairs.  The question is always one of the balance of probabilities.  And the evidence for probabilities must include more than abstract possibilities. 

(10) The cardinal sin, when we are looking for truth of fact or wisdom of policy, is refusal to discuss, or action that blocks discussion.”

Naturally other suggestions can be entertained and experimented with as well.

Now, some may think these insights about fallible inquiry sound nice but are bound to be inapplicable when confronting those perceived to be obviously immoral, dogmatic, beyond reach, and so on. But could it be that the perceived hopelessness of such relations is a function of our infallible attitude that presumes to know something for certain? I think we should all be inspired by author, musician, lecturer, and actor Daryl Davis who reached out to the KKK, engaged them in respectful dialogue, and, as result, encouraged over 200 Klan members to leave the organization. If he, an African American who was the victim of racism, can do this then perhaps we might reconsider our situations that appear hopeless. You can watch the trailer for the documentary about his efforts, Accidental Courtesy, here; you can watch his TEDx Talk here. Also note that there are various organizations that facilitate dialogues between people of different political persuasions. Here are three with plenty of resources you might want to check out: Living Room Conversations, America in One Room, and Braver Angels.

Daryl Davis

(3) When seeking the truth of moral issues, don’t just consider differences; consider the possibility of shared values of human nature and shared human rights.

One long-standing approach to moral issues in the history of philosophy is to look at human nature, see what its good potentials are, and then prescribe actions that facilitate the actualization of these potentials so we can flourish individually and collectively (natural law theory and natural virtue ethics are good examples of this approach). The hope is to find laws or guides that help us, despite our various individual and cultural differences, develop a framework for morality that is objective, universal, and intelligible. Such a framework might also include human rights that are grounded in our shared nature – at least the basic rights of the Declaration of Independence.

Appeals to our common humanity and human rights have been made in name of social justice. For example, Charles Henry Langston (1817–1892), an American abolitionist and political activist, was one of a group of men who freed runaway slave John Price in 1858. The Underground Railroad hid Price in Oberlin and helped transport him to freedom in Canada. Eventually, Langston was tried and convicted. But he thought he was in the right insofar as he stood on a moral commitment deeper than the prevailing civil laws. Consider his final words at the Cuyahoga Courthouse, May 1859: “I stand here to say that I will do all I can, for any man thus seized and help, though the inevitable penalty of six months imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine for each offense hangs over me! We have a common humanity.” Martin Luther King, Jr. explicitly employed natural law theory to justify his position against segregation when according to the law his actions were wrong. Recall he ended up in the Birmingham jail because he was non-violently opposing segregation. As a result, he couldn’t appeal to the law to make his moral case. Rather, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963) he used natural law theory to make a moral case in support of his actions. He argued that segregation is wrong because it thwarts human nature – it “distorts the soul” and “damages the personality” as he put it – by preventing both the segregated and the segregators from actualizing their natural social and rational potentials. And crimes against our common humanity played a crucial role in the decisive Nuremberg Trials as well. Barbara MacKinnon, in her book Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues (Cengage, 2015), explains:

“The Nuremberg trials were trials of Nazi war criminals held in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949. There were thirteen trials in all. In the first trial, Nazi leaders were found guilty of violating international law by starting an aggressive war…in other trials, defendants were accused of committing atrocities against civilians…The defense contended that the military personnel, judges, and doctors were only following orders from their superiors in the Nazi regime. However, the prosecution argued successfully that that even if the experimentation did not violate the defendant’s own laws, they were still “crimes against humanity.” The idea was that a law more basic than civil laws exists—a moral law—and these doctors and others should have known what this basic moral law required.” (134-135).

Appealing to crimes against our common humanity also helped convict Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann who was captured some years later and received the death penalty by hanging on June 1, 1962. 

A photo from the Nuremberg Trials: facing justice for crimes against our common humanity

These impressive examples might make us sympathetic to appeals to our shared humanity. But they leave us with a question: what is this shared humanity? This is a tough question to sufficiently answer. But it doesn’t take much to see that we do have plenty of candidates for shared human values such as life, liberty, happiness, opportunity, security, dignity, respect, honor, truth, friends, love, sex, play, family, justice, humor, beauty, and creativity. Of course, different people and societies may seek to realize these values in different ways. For example, people want justice but have different means of realizing this value: different laws, punishments, institutions, and so on. People seek love and want to actualize their sexuality but in very different ways with different taboos, restrictions, rites of passage, conceptions of normality/perversion, and so on. And knowledge and truth are values that throughout history have been sought after by diverse methods such as science, magic, religion, logic, etc. We can go on and on. Naturally these diverse modes of pursuit may eclipse whatever shared values there may be. One thinks here of the abortion issue: both sides may value life, children, family, pursuit of happiness, security and so on but pro-life solutions to realizing these values are so different from pro-choice solutions that there seems to be little hope for reconciliation. But I think it is possible, in some cases, that detecting these fundamental values can help us see those with whom we radically disagree as more akin to ourselves than we realize. Both republicans and democrats tend to want the following “common objects of love” that President Biden, as we saw in the last post, said could unify us: opportunity, security, dignity, respect, and honor. We also saw Biden’s call to unity appealed to a unity of purpose that comes from fighting our “common enemies” such as COVID-19, unemployment, systemic racism, attacks on our democracy, attacks on the truth, growing inequity, a climate in crisis, lack of healthcare, lawlessness, and extremism. We also saw how, in listing all these candidates, plenty of people felt excluded given certain interpretations of them. But we may find ways to overcome some conflict if we stop focusing so much on the different ways the values are realized and focus on the underlying shared values themselves. For if we can agree on a shared value then we can discover some shared ground for a dialogue, however heated, about the best means of actualizing this value. Moreover, sometimes what appears to be primarily a political debate can be reassessed as a human rights issue that can help us see the problem in a very different and more inclusive manner. And, at the very least, appeals to our shared nature might help us see others as fellow humans with rights and value rather than as demons with no value and rights. And this can lead to some mutual goodwill, sympathy, and compassion.


I have tried in the these two posts to briefly explain how the widespread lack of civility in America has come about and why it is a serious problem. I have suggested that solutions to the issues we are having, for example economic, educational, political, or religious ones, are typically ineffective since they are very controversial and often presuppose what we don’t always have, namely, the ability to talk in a civil way to each other. I have offered three strategies that, while controversial on some level, are hopefully less controversial and presuppose less than other approaches. By no means are they going to solve all our problems: indeed, they are not even solutions to specific issues but rather strategies for opening a space to address problems together. And there are certainly other strategies that can be added. For example, it is hard to see how Americans can be more united if we all don’t look carefully at racism, ask ourselves plenty of hard questions about it, and engage in efforts for reform (for some thoughts along these lines, see my post on George Floyd here). But the strategies I offered, especially when taken together, might allow us to make some headway towards regaining the capacity for genuine dialogue. To sum up these strategies: we can try and cultivate apolitical relationships that help us cultivate civic friendship or the habits and dispositions that help us engage in active inquiry with others – especially others with whom we radically and passionately disagree – and see them as equal sharers in political power. If we do find ourselves involved in a political discussion we can keep in mind our fallibility in order to proceed more like Socrates and a scientist might: with some perplexity, humility, doubt, and an open mind that knows that, since we don’t know anything for certain, those with whom we disagree might have the truth or perhaps a part of the truth. And we can try and discover some shared human values and rights that often lie hidden underneath the diverse ways we pursue these values and rights. All too often we see the differences and overlook the commonalities – very often because of the media and the controversial drama upon which it thrives. So we can see what universals we can discover and do our best to orient the conversation to those universals. In emphasizing our shared humanity we might, at the very least, humanize each other and avoid the pernicious demonization that inevitably leads to communication breakdown and a failure to sympathize and be compassionate.

Go here for my three part series on philosophy in the wake of George Floyd.

Go here for my series on natural law and social justice.

Go here for my post on Mill’s worst polemical offense and the 2016 election.

Go here for my post on David Bohm’s insights about cultivating dialogue between defensive people.

Go here for my six part blog series on reducing the costs of tragic conflict.

Go here for my thoughts on Trump and alternative facts.



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