Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark. – GK Chesterton, Heretics, 1905
In today’s social marketplace, there is no labor so passé as the humble, toilsome work of seeking common ground among those with whom we disagree. Ours is an age of unparalleled political polarization in which seemingly every sphere of our shared cultural life—public health, education, sports, children’s cartoons—must percolate through a partisan strainer prior to consumption. In such a climate, engaging the ideological “other” is the antithesis of virtue, a sure sign of one’s ideological infidelity and paucity of creedal commitment. This dogmatic approach to public life—characterized by blinkered, black-and-white thinking and a take-no-prisoners, mob mentality in debate and dialogue—precludes the very transformation it seeks.
To be sure, social change requires resolute persons, those with deep convictions and a willingness to stand their ground in moments of challenge and controversy. But when intransigence comes to be seen as a virtue, a moral good in its own right, the result is a caustic public square in which principled collaboration is eschewed for performative outrage. Superficially, the effects of a public-square-turned-partisan-pressure-cooker are fairly pedestrian…Twitter tirades proliferate, and the awkwardness of extended family gatherings amplifies (in the words of Cousin Eddy, “Shitter’s full”).
Elsewhere, the impacts hold much greater heft. Our culture stands at a pivotal inflection point as we collectively reckon with the evil of slavery and its persistent aftereffects, a once-in-a-century pandemic, record unemployment, runaway inequality, and a restive political atmosphere reminiscent of an underage, overserved seatmate on a trans-Atlantic flight. The natural response to such uncertainty and disquiet is fairly straightforward; consolidate your losses and circle the wagons in preparation for the next wave of culture wars. Add one spark—say the death of a prominent octogenarian—to this sociopolitical tinderbox, and suddenly it feels like the whole world is up in flames.
But soon enough, we will realize that our present approach to public life leaves us in a precarious position reminiscent of early 20th century trench warfare—either hunker down with your comrades only to be wasted by disease and sickness, or poke your head out and fall prey to the intermittent fire of enemy snipers. In time, political polarization creates an impervious no-man’s-land from which no one escapes unscathed. Do we really want to live this way?
Here’s the rub. We’re currently stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts, in which we would all be better off if both sides opted to lay down their sacred cows in search of shared solutions, but nobody wants to get the sucker’s payoff and be left holding the bag. Vulnerabilities notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that those social issues of greatest import—questions about human dignity, equal justice, inalienable rights—simply cannot be addressed without a broad coalition of engaged actors from across the sociopolitical spectrum. Anything less, despite the best of intentions, is nothing more than tilting at windmills, a myopic attempt to solve communal problems from the friendly confines of an ideological cloister of like-minded eremites.
This strategy doesn’t produce change. Practically, the unwillingness to be found consorting with the other side—lest one be denounced as a skullduggerous turncoat—incentivizes disavowal in lieu of debate. Determined to signal disdain for our enemies, our public discourse narrows to the triviality of negation, our conversations marked less by what we are for and more by what we are against.
Take, for instance, the ongoing debate about police reform in this country. On one end of the spectrum, some progressive activists have advocated for an all-or-nothing dismantling of the police, an overly idealistic approach that fails to appreciate the complexities of policing inequality in our fractured times. On the other end of the debate, conservatives have taken an equally unhelpful tact, painting all calls for police reform with a broad “anti-cop crusade” brush. In the end, thoughtful, good faith efforts to foster dialogue and initiate meaningful reform never make it off the ground.
Without an honest, open, bipartisan dialogue about the fundamentals—what kind of society we want, and what it requires of each of us—all the activism in the world isn’t going to move the needle very much. The result? A world in which the only aspect of cultural life we hold in common is a penchant for cancellation, with minimal effort devoted to offering alternative visions of a shared civic life marked by the common good.
Put differently, our zeal for extirpation of the problematic “others” out there outpaces our ability to craft a “coalition of the willing” required for lasting social change in a pluralistic society. We are left with nothing more than a vacuum, an abnegation of the present order without anything better to fill its place. In the last, our ardent culture-warring proves largely meaningless—cathartic, maybe, but certainly not transformational. It’s all bark, no bite. All heat, no light.