Whither Dialogue after the Capitol Riot?

By: Amelia Uelmen

January 22, 2021

Faith and the American Insurrection

The events of January 6, 2021 pose formidable obstacles to efforts to foster nuanced discussion about religion and the public square, and to bridging the divide between intensely polarized factions. Where do we go from here? How might we overcome the increasing tendency—on both sides of the political aisle—to perceive efforts to reach out to the other side as an unforgivable “compromise” with evil?

Dialogue and Protest

Don’t dare call them protesters,” then President-elect Biden said in his remarks on January 6. “They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists.” In contrast, Fox News host Tucker Carlson characterized the incident as nothing more than a “political protest that got out of hand.” 

From different angles, both emphasize the revered place of protest in the U.S. experience of democracy. We need protest, with its stark declarations of what is wrong and its clear demands for what is right. We need forms of communication that fit onto a poster or placard. 

But protest represents only one form of political communication, one rhetorical form. And if we limit our vision of politics only to an affirmation of principles, at a certain point we are not going to be able to work through the obstacles on the ground. 

If we limit our vision of politics only to an affirmation of principles, at a certain point we are not going to be able to work through the obstacles on the ground.

Working for change in society, and building a team of people who are convinced that they can work together for positive change, requires a variety of communicative forms: conversation, analysis, teaching, debate, and even the easy back-and-forth between friends in all of the ways that we “chat” online or in person. 

Dialogue is a privileged space to discuss more fully exactly how we hope to protect human dignity in a given political terrain, against the backdrop of a specific history or economy; how we hope to dismantle unfair structures; how we navigate the creative tensions between values and interests. 

Dialogue is not about squelching conflict. It is not about merely smoothing over points of tension. It is about developing the equipment we need to step into complexity, into relationships, and into the hard work of caring for our body politic.

Reframe the Goal: Listening to Understand

For my own teaching and scholarship on religion in the public square, I have found great inspiration in Robert Cover’s brief but brilliant 1987 essay, “Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Order.” Cover did not insist that people with differing thought systems or comprehensive worldviews reduce their public communication to an “overlapping consensus” that is stripped of reference to their own traditions. For example, asked to reflect on Judaism and human rights, Cover explained with simplicity: “the categories are wrong” because “Judaism has its own categories for expressing through law the worth and dignity of each human being.” Instead, Cover pressed on to describe the space required to explore other “fundamental words” and the “fundamental stories” from which those words receive their force and meaning. 

Cover proposed a comparative method. He recognized that each system of rhetoric has a differently “loaded, evocative edge.” Each has strengths and weaknesses, but there is room to appreciate both: “Sinai and social contract both have their place.” Cover also left room in the conversation for ample appreciation of personal and religious experience: what system speaks to me? In this essay, scanning his own “privileged position” and the blessings in his own life, Cover concluded: “it seems to me that the rhetoric of obligation speaks more sharply to me than that of rights.” (In earlier scholarship, I have explored how Cover’s comparative method illuminates an approach to dialogue on the law and policy of euthanasia). 

In the wake of the 2020 election, I believe that Cover’s framework offers quite a balm for our polity. A first insight would be to let go—or at least loosen a tight grip—on the liberal quest for an “overlapping consensus.” For a large number of people in our polity, the categories of liberal theory simply do not capture or fully capture their worldview. For some, insisting that they translate their beliefs into these categories of thought does not help to generate understanding and consensus, but a deeper sense of alienation. Perhaps at least for this point in our journey, we should acknowledge that we are not going to reach a consensus on some deeply contested issues. 

Perhaps at least for this point in our journey, we should acknowledge that we are not going to reach a consensus on some deeply contested issues. 

What if the goal of dialogue were to be reframed as listening to understand? Listening to understand entails creating the space in my own mind and heart to receive the other as they are, so that they might articulate their ideas in the way that they would like to express them, with their own words and concepts. The beauty of a comparative method for dialogue is that it often opens out into a much deeper and richer appreciation of both the strengths and the limits of differing visions of the good. It also leaves more room for narratives about personal commitment and insight that can humanize a political debate.

Of course, there will be important limits. Of course, we should protect a necessary space to firmly denounce racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry of all types, and other social and cultural maladies that diminish human dignity. Listening to understand does not foreclose even vigorous critique. But it does help to humanize the arguments, and in so doing, to reduce the tendency for conversation to devolve into paralyzing personal attacks. 

Repairing a Broken Polity

On January 7, 2021, Michelle Obama tweeted a message on what it will take to truly repair what is broken. “It is up to each of us to do our part. To reach out. To listen. And to hold tight to the truth and values that have always led this country forward. It will be an uncomfortable, sometimes painful process. But if we enter into it with an honest and unwavering love of our country, then maybe we can finally start to heal.” 

Perhaps the work of dialogue grounded in the capacity to listen to understand is one of those paths forward. 

Perhaps the work of dialogue grounded in the capacity to listen to understand is one of those paths forward.

“From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.” So begins the poem by Israeli Yehuda Amichai that adorns the last station of the Tel Aviv memorial exhibit to Yitzhak Rabin. In contrast, the poem continues, “doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow.”

Making room in the conversation for “doubts and loves” does not mean throwing principles to the wind. But it does require cultivating a space to appreciate that there are a variety of paths, strategies and theories, that can lead to hoped-for social and political goals. The difficult art of dialogue, listening to understand, is one way to open out that space. 

And if we do so, perhaps we might also help to bring into reality the promise in Amichai’s closing line: “And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.”

Editor’s Note: This piece is an excerpted version of an essay originally published by the Canopy Forum on January 13, 2021. It is republished here with permission.

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