216. Tragedy, Dialogue, and Community

In two recent posts (see here) I explored how we might, in these times where many people find it difficult to talk to one another given various political, moral, and cultural differences, help communities better embody the conditions for genuine dialogue, that is, how they might become more dialogical. The issue is certainly important as Richard J. Bernstein, in his book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), points out:

“In the face of the multifaceted critiques of modernity, no one needs to be reminded of how fragile such communities are, how easily they become coopted and perverted. But at a time when the threat of total annihilation no longer seems to be an abstract possibility but the most imminent and real potentiality, it becomes all the more imperative to try again and again to foster and nurture those forms of communal life in which dialogue, conversation, phronesis, practical discourse, and judgement are concretely embodied in our everyday practices.” (229)

In those previous posts I explored Robert Talisse’s suggestion that we can make some progress by engaging in apolitical relationships that help 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. I also prescribed that we 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 finally I suggested we try and discover 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.

In this post I want to briefly explore the possibility that the experience of tragedy can help cultivate dialogical communities in ways that avoid the following two problems that efforts to establish such communities often face: (1) they tend to presuppose the existence of a sense of community and solidarity upon which to build—a sense that is clearly missing in some cases and may not be easily generated; and (2) any effort to generate it which employs thoughtless team spirit, manufactured consent, totalitarian ideology, etc. will generate conformity and dogmatism rather than genuine dialogue and so will be self-defeating.

Terry Eagleton, in his book Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), points out that, although tragedies are specific to particular peoples, genders, nations, social groups, and so on, they do have one shared essence, namely, the fact of suffering. This suffering is “a mightily powerful language to share in common, one in which many diverse life-forms can strike up a dialogue. It is a communality of meaning” (xvi). Most people who deeply mourn a tragic loss find it comforting to know they are not alone. Many share regrets that live on after a loved one dies because a decision between competing goods or rights prevented some form of closure. Many share the experience of getting older and gaining more obligations that entail numerous sacrifices regarding personal interests, children, health, money, and love. Many share the suffering of having their voice silenced in countless decisions. And everyone shares in history which, as Sidney Hook notes in his essay “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life,” is “the arena of the profoundest moral conflicts in which some legitimate right has always been sacrificed, sometimes on the alters of the God of War” (1974, 17). What makes suffering such a mighty language is its brute reality. Indeed, even post-modern rhetoric would fail to undermine the brute reality of a swollen foot: “We feel sympathy for Philoctetes because he is in agonizing pain from his pus-swollen foot. There is no use in pretending that his foot is a realm of impenetrable otherness which our modern-day notions can grasp only at the cost of brutally colonizing the past” (xiv). 

If the above is correct then we might try to see how the phenomenon of shared suffering can help foster that elusive sense of community which is needed for genuine dialogue. Now one might think this sense would be primarily emotional. But this need not be the case. In fact, the ways people share in the undeniable reality of suffering often lead to discourse about common problems. It therefore provides a nice entrance into emotionally charged discussions about the moral and political choices we face. Such discussions can and often do occur at memorial services, vigils, protests, and other forms of expression that rise up in response to tragedy. Perhaps we could try to foster a community of inquiry from a community of suffering.   

The second challenge to nurturing community is avoiding artificially fabricating community in a self-defeating way. What is interesting about the sense of community engendered by tragedy is that the “currency” of such a community is injury, division, and antagonism (Eagleton, xvi). People who come together in shared suffering are not necessarily doing so under some homogenizing ideology. They may come together out of a recognition that such homogenizing forces don’t do justice to the plurality of goods and rights in the world. William James once pointed out that “Pent in under every system of moral rules are innumerable persons whom it weighs upon, and goods which it represses; and these are always rumbling and grumbling in the background, and ready for any issue by which they may get free.” A local community fostered through shared experiences of tragic conflict would be more likely to take James’ insight to heart. By doing so it might generate discourse sensitive to the ways in which dialogue is undermined through force, how voices are silenced through intimidation, and how superficial solutions to problems generate suffering by ignoring the complexity of experience. And this sensitivity could lead to new and unpredictable forms of solidarity. In Beyond Objectivism and Relativism Bernstein notes that our efforts in fostering local communities are characterized by a paradox “where power creates counter-power (resistance) and reveals the vulnerability of power, where the very forces that undermine and inhibit communal life also create new, and frequently unpredictable, forms of solidarity” (228). The struggles of tragedy may facilitate a sense of solidarity that can actually emerge from such forces. Perhaps we can be on the lookout for such struggles and be prepared to react to them in novel ways.

For my series on pragmatism and tragic conflict, go here.

For my post on John Dewey and tragedy, go here.

For my post on William James and tragedy, go here.

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