Posted on October 17, 2019 at 9:04 AM
In Elizabeth Anderson’s final Uehiro lecture, she tackles what she takes to be the hardest problem facing our current political discourse – How can we overcome obstacles to communicating moral concerns in order to orient policy to important values (such as public health and justice)? This is a particularly difficult and intractable problem because it concerns our moral values; in overcoming this obstacle, there is thus a considerable degree of scope for disagreement, and judgments of the moral character of others based on their moral opinions. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson refines the diagnosis of this problem, and once again expresses optimism about overcoming the obstacles she highlights. This time she outlines how we might disarm the fear, resentment, pride, and contempt that is currently derailing our political discourse, and the virtues that we must develop to do so.
Once again, Anderson begins the lecture by refining her diagnosis of the problem she is going to discuss. She notes that through the practices of trolling and shaming respectively, both the right and left engage in a discourse of what she terms a ‘positional moral esteem’ competition; which group can wrest control of the moral high ground? Anderson suggests that this interferes with constructive democratic discourse because:
- Such discourse in its own terms is zero-sum – the moral high ground cannot be occupied by both groups.
- It is negative sum over all, because of the adverse consequences it has; such discourse induces rancour, distrust, vengeance, and a failure to co-operate, constituting democratic decline.
This toxic discourse expresses the following emotions that obstruct constructive discussion. The trolling and insult throwing commonly practiced by the right expresses resentment against elites, whilst hate speech and derogatory stereotypes express fear. In contrast, the shaming commonly practiced by the left expresses moral contempt for the right, and moral pride of one’s own group.
Accordingly, the strategy that Anderson adopts in the rest of the lecture is to consider how we might disarm these toxic emotions. How can we disarm fear, resentment, contempt, and pride in political contexts in order to enable constructive discourse? Each emotion is taken in turn.
Beginning with fear, Anderson presents the case study of Dr. Ayaz Virji. Dr. Virji was a Muslim doctor who gave up a potentially lucrative career in the city to provide improved health care access in in rural Minnesota. Although he was initially welcomed, Dr. Virji began to feel fear at the political discourse in the run up to the 2016 election, as Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric took hold. Dr. Virji found himself becoming angry with neighbours and patients who ostentatiously supported Trump.
Virji critically examined this anger, and sought to transform it into understanding. He was given the opportunity to do so when the local Lutheran pastor invited Dr. Virji to speak to parishoners who had expressed a fear of Muslims. Dr. Virij accepted, and spoke about his faith, debunked stereotypes, and spoke about the pain of being subject to negative stereotypes. He received a standing ovation, and was encouraged to speak to other Trump supporting towns.
Anderson uses this case study to unpack the psychology of fear, and to consider how it might be disarmed. She notes that fear is a response to the perception of a threat, and that threats may be perceived to be powerful, deceptive, unknown, and ultimately ‘Other’. On her analysis, Virji was able to disarm this fear by employing a number of means displaying considerable emotional intelligence: He expressed his own vulnerability, spoke sincerely, and spoke about identities and concerns he shared with his neighbours.
To elucidate how we might tackle resentment, Anderson focuses on a political canvassing experiment employing analogic perspective-taking. The canvassing concerned a Miami-Dade ordinance protecting trans people from discrimination. Crucially, rather than canvassers simply seeking to present their own position and persuade the voter to change, they instead began by respectfully listening to how the voter explained their own position in the debate. Following this, an analogic perspective-taking exercise was introduced – the voter was asked if they had ever felt negative judgment because they had been seen as different. This was an invitation for them to reflect, and to draw parallels to how trans people feel. Interestingly, pre/post canvassing, voter opinions were persistently more accepting of trans people relative to controls.
What might explain the effect of analogic perspective taking on resentment? Anderson suggests that resentment can be grounded by perceived ‘line-cutting’. One perceives that the suffering of others is being tended to, but one’s own suffering is not; the result is resentment of the other. Why should they get special rights? On this understanding, Anderson suggests that resentment can be disarmed by asking others to testify to their own experience of suffering and injustice, and by respectfully listening to that testimony. This is a way of tending to the suffering that, if ignored, sows the seeds of resentment. Anderson suggests that the power of such sincere testimony is manifest in the evolving attitudes towards gay marriage over the past two decades. The analogic perspective taking exercise thus enlarges empathy for the resented, and opens possibilities for common-ground politics.
What about the moral pride and contempt expressed in shaming? Anderson identifies Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign as including a paradigm case of expressing these emotions in its slogan ‘When they go low, you go high’. This slogan painted ‘the other’ as irredeemably racist and bigoted ‘deplorables’. The reaction to this from the right was to treat the label ‘deplorable’ as a badge of honour.
This example evidences a particular difficulty associated with these emotions – how can one object to identity-based injustice in a manner that does not inherently involve blame/judgment of the sort that will inspire indignation on the part of those who endorse the practice that is deemed unjust? Indeed, Anderson notes that we often fail to achieve this, and that this shifts the political discourse from a 1st order moral concern about the immediate injustice itself, to a second order moral concern about the character of the agents who endorse or perform the injustice. This is problematic; it leads to chest-beating virtue-signalling, and displaces discussion of the important moral issue; namely, the 1st order moral concern.
Anderson goes on to suggest that there are two toxic inferential dynamics at work in shaming. First, there is often a disagreement about descriptive facts – the problematic inference with respect to this disagreement is that ‘the shamers’ have the same evidence as ‘the shamed’, and evaluate it in the same way. Second, there can also be a disagreement about values – the problematic inference with this disagreement is that it supposes that the values of the ‘shamers’ are obviously correct, and that the ‘shamed’ are intentionally violating them.
In order to overcome the kind of moral pride and contempt to which shaming gives rise, Anderson suggests that we cultivate virtues outlined by the philosopher Robin Demboff. Demboff is non-gender conforming, and experienced considerable shifts in views moving from a highly conservative upbringing to a progressive academic world. Reflecting on this experience, Demboff has emphasised the importance of two virtues. First, epistemic humility – we should be open to the possibility that we can get things wrong, and that we might change our beliefs. Second, ideological mercy – this involves recognising that everyone’s opinions have an origin story that renders them intelligible to the holder. We need to understand the other’s point of view before criticizing, and aim to meet the other ‘where they are’, and avoid elitism.
What does communication in accordance with these kinds of virtues look like? First, it calls on us to assume ignorance not evil on behalf of those whose views appear abhorrent. We should not be quick to label others as bigoted, but instead seek to recognise the origin story of conflicting beliefs and values. We should also assume good will and a willingness to change on behalf of those with whom we disagree; that is, we should not condemn the other as being an irredeemable deplorable beyond hope or dialogue. Finally, drawing on Elise Springer’s work “Communicating Moral Concern” Anderson suggests that we should aim to invite the other to contribute to the dialogue about how to understand what the problematic behaviour is, and invite them to consider how we together ought to respond. Such communication thus involves reciprocal attention to the other’s concerns and values.
Anderson concludes by noting that this is approach is in stark contrast to the orthodox approach to philosophical discussion – Philosophical discussion typically advances on the basis of pro vs con arguments, grounded by abstract principles and premises. Such an argumentative approach is often combative; a kind of rhetorical warfare, that is liable to degenerate into positional competition. Anderson’s view of moral communication differs in a number of important ways. First, it is grounded by non-universalizable personal testimonies that accommodate personal points of view and social identities in a way that abstract philosophical principles and premise do not. The aim of the communication also differs. The aim is not to ‘win’, but to elicit empathy. At best then, the abstract principles championed in philosophical discussions of polarising issues should be viewed at most as tentative conclusions arrived at through dialogue, if political discourse on these issues is to be fruitful.
The lecture concludes, fittingly, by linking the preceding discussion back to Dewey, who wrote that “Suppression of the other . . .by ridicule [and] abuse” is “treason to the democratic way of life”. In its place, Dewey presented an alternative, which is to have faith in the possibility of conducting disputes as co-operative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself. This is just the kind of communicative model that Anderson has explained the need for, and fleshed out over the course of this far-reaching and lucid lecture series on one of the most pressing practical issues of our time.