open book on a table

“Resisting Ourselves”

A sermon based on Robert B. Talisse, Sustaining Democracy, for the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Louisville, Kentucky

Does anyone here need to be convinced that working for justice is a moral imperative? Probably not. I know the folks in this congregation are proud of their history of standing up for civil rights for all races, all genders, all gender expressions, all of that – and keep taking practical steps in that direction, especially when those rights are under attack – knowing that’s the right thing to do.

Or does anyone here need to be convinced that a moral imperative like that is also a spiritual matter? That standing on the right side of moral imperatives is part of making conscious choices to work at transcending ourselves, rising above ourselves in the direction of our highest ideals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty –

That’s my working definition of “spiritual,” by the way. It may not be everyone’s. But hopefully, the idea that “spirituality” has to do with our intentions and practices, in the direction of our chosen ideals, will strike most people as a pretty sympathetic way of describing that dimension of our lives that is interior, and that centrally concerns the relationship between our selves and our highest possibilities as selves. Whatever we understand those highest possibilities to be, whether it’s becoming more “Christlike,” or more “mindful and enlightened,” or “closer to Nature,” or more “aligned with the Universe,” or more “consistently humane and rational” … whatever are our highest ideals of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

So, hopefully we can all agree that our moral striving, our moral practice, is part of our spiritual practice – maybe not all of it, but part of it.

And so, most likely, everyone here already agrees that, in principle at least, political engagement in the direction of justice, and of social justice in particular, is morally and spiritually praiseworthy and desirable.

And that’s good for me, because it means I don’t need to spend a whole lot of time talking people out of the idea that “churches don’t have any business in politics” or “spirituality is supposed to be apolitical” or any of that, and people will be OK if I talk about politics from here. Hopefully. But if I did need to do more of that … we can talk later.

Because this morning, building on all that agreement, and with the understanding that people here have been exploring the “path of resistance” this month, I want to share an insight into democratic politics – that’s small “d” democratic, btw, not the political party, but the political system, of self-government by political equals – and a recommendation for a practice we need to engage in, if we’re going to sustain democratic politics. That is, a moral and a spiritual political practice.  

The insight and the recommendation come from Robert B. Talisse, who is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of the recent book Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side. (which I highly recommend – something else we can talk about later, if anyone’s interested)

Talisse suggests that, if we’re thinking about political engagement as being a moral practice – which he certainly does – and as part of our spiritual practice – which I’m saying here, that it’s an active spiritual practice – we need to pursue our political engagement in a specific way.

We need to practice a specific kind of … what we might call “self-resistance,” contemplative self-resistance, as an element of our political engagement. We can’t only resist our political opponents, or our insufficiently-woke, insufficiently-mobilized comrades; we need to resist ourselves. And we will likely need some alone time, for contemplation, to make that happen.

The reason for this, according to Professor Talisse, is that political engagement itself – that is, this practical, and moral, and spiritual activity we think is so responsible and good – triggers in people, in us, the process by which something called “belief polarization” takes hold on us.

“Belief polarization” is a well-documented phenomenon where, the more time we spend with people who agree with us, the more extreme our beliefs become.

And the more confidence we have in them, in their being true and correct and right. And the more we disagree, and the more strongly we disagree, with the people who disagree with us.

And the more suspicious we become of their motives and characters and basic intelligence, and the more we think of them in disparaging terms, since they’re obviously the kind of people who, when shown the facts, come to the wrong conclusions; and who, when they make decisions, make the wrong ones, who don’t even care about what’s good for people, or about what’s true and right … so, let’s face it, those kind of people are … well, if they’re not stupid, they’re bad – evil, even.

Also, the more risks we’re willing to take to act on our more and more obviously, to us, true and good ideas, and to oppose our evil opponents.

And, honestly, when we’re fighting people like them, we can start to wonder whether democracy is really a good idea. Is it, when evil people are just using it to take over power and hold on to it and use it to do really bad things? To perpetrate social injustice? [We might feel we have examples of that kind of thing, right here in the state of Kentucky.]

As people who care about justice, we’re bound to think that way.

In fact, Professor Talisse will tell us: thinking that way is one of the core moral problems facing democracy. The problem that the more we engage in it [democracy], the more active and responsible we are as citizens, the more vulnerable we become to this dynamic that makes us think that it might be a good idea to un-democratize it … at least temporarily … a little … for the best reasons, for the sake of all that’s good and decent. Honestly.

So Talisse urges us to take a couple of things to heart: 1) because of belief polarization – which research has amply shown is a general human dynamic, one we all may think we’re immune from, but which we’re really not, and which we’re less immune from the less aware of it we are – our assessments of how evil our opponents are, and how stupid they are, are probably too extreme. Probably. And the more engaged we are, and the more polarized we are in our beliefs, the more extreme and distorted our assessments are likely to be. But the less we’ll be able to see that. That’s some bad news, morally and spiritually speaking.

And 2), what’s even worse, the more we stop listening to our political opponents – because, after all, they’re stupid and evil, so why would we listen to them? The more we talk and work only with our friends, that dynamic of belief polarization doesn’t stop, it just lands on new targets.

So, we start to see the people supposedly on “our side” who don’t agree with us ENOUGH, on EVERYTHING, point for point, enthusiastically … as being … mmm, awfully close to being the kind of people who, when shown the facts, come to the wrong conclusions; and who make the wrong decisions; and who don’t even care about what’s true and right and good for people, … not the way they really should … so that they start to look to us … now that we get a good close look at them … closer to evil than we realized.

And practically speaking, says Professor Talisse, now is when democracy really starts to die – when we start having a more and more difficult time sustaining the kinds of coalitions, the broad and diverse coalitions of differing viewpoints, that are necessary for us to accomplish political objectives in a democratic polity. Because if we want a self-governing society of political equals, we will need lots of people, with a broad range of ideas, who won’t all agree with us 100% on everything, to get together to get things done. We need to cultivate a spacious common ground – which means, it can’t exclude everyone who doesn’t fully subscribe to every point on our agenda.

If we want to sustain democracy – and he’d argue that we should want to, because we are more likely to achieve justice in a system of self-government by political equals – we can’t just “get active.” We also need to cultivate within ourselves our ability to perceive, and to keep perceiving, that there really is a range of reasonable differences of opinion – a wider range than we might like to think.

Because we need to see and feel that people can disagree with us without simply being traitors to what’s right.

Talisse’s talk about the way belief polarization can turn inward and make our coalitions fall apart reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend once, in college … when we were all trying to be good radicals, recognizing that the personal is political, boycotting Nestlé and grapes and being vegetarian and maybe even vegan, and my friend, let’s call her Shar, was really committed to this kind of thing, very devoted, very engaged in aligning her personal practice with her convictions, a role model, honestly, in that regard. So, we’d agreed to meet at Beggar’s Banquet, one of the restaurants off campus that catered to the college crowd, just for coffee. [N.B., it’s still there – but it’s different.] And in the course of this conversation, she said, “I love this place” – it really was a nice space, lots of light, spacious, decorated with architectural salvage, & kind of conscious, they recycled or something … it was nice. “I love this place, but I always feel like a traitor eating here; I ought to eat at Small Planet” … that was another restaurant off campus, a vegetarian one … way less comfortable than Beggar’s, seriously [N.B., not still there] … “I always feel I ought to be eating at Small Planet, because Beggar’s serves chili. With meat.”

Like, we shouldn’t really go along with that.

Which illustrates Talisse’s point about how our coalitions, in the face of belief polarization, shrink and fall apart, because the range of acceptable ideas gets too narrow, the common ground gets too small …

And I sat there and wondered whether, if being politically responsible meant I couldn’t even drink coffee at Beggar’s Banquet, even if I didn’t order the chili, maybe I shouldn’t even try to be politically responsible. Maybe I should just forget it.

Which illustrates the other danger Professor Talisse warns against: the danger of withdrawal. Because, democratic engagement is morally demanding. I’d add, spiritually strenuous. But justice is not well-served by our withdrawal. Not the dropping out kind of withdrawal, anyway.

Instead, along with engagement, we need to resist the belief polarization that comes with it. Within ourselves.

And fortunately, there’s a way to do that – although it’s not easy. Because the way to resist belief polarization it is to seek out, and listen to – thoughtfully engage with – the different, reasonable criticisms of our cherished ideas.

We can resist belief polarization – the dynamic that subverts our democratic commitments – by staying engaged with our critics; enough to become aware of, listen for and to, the specific reasons those people who reject our beliefs reject them. Their objections. Their misunderstandings. And think about how to respond to those.

We resist belief polarization – that force within ourselves that drags us towards authoritarianism, and pushes our allies towards disengagement – by actively making ourselves aware of the reasonable objections, the potential misunderstandings, the unaddressed questions, of our critics. And then engaging ourselves in the thoughtful work of responding to those. Recognizing that our beliefs, and the way we express them, can be improved – and engaging in that improvement.

Respecting our opponents enough to assume they have reasons for not thinking what we think. And deserve our best answers to those reasons.

Listening to and understanding our political adversaries’ disagreements offers powerful resistance to belief polarization. But … it’s hard to practice.

The hardest thing about it may be seeking out that engagement with the people who disagree with us.

True story, years ago, the congregation I was a member of decided to sponsor a book study of a couple of books on Islam. In Corydon, Indiana. And to make it more accessible to the community, to meet at the library. And we announced it in the newspaper, with some what I thought was innocuous language about “getting better informed about Islam, so we can be better neighbors …” and suddenly, the library started getting phone calls threatening picket lines, and resistance was being mobilized … to a book study!

[how stupid and evil do you have to be to be against reading a book, eh??!]

… and then I got a call from a member of one of those groups, Don, who called me up – he had to think I was his enemy, at that point; – but he called me up, and just asked: what’s this about?

And that gave me an opportunity to ask, why the opposition to a book group? – and he said: some people think this is the first step to bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees in to Harrison County …

… maybe if we hadn’t used that word “neighbors” …

But it would never have occurred to me that I might have needed to phrase it differently. If I’d never gotten that call from Don. With whom I was never going to agree on very many things. But who did us the favor – and the honor – of reaching out, to ask a question.

Because learning about that objection at least made it possible to defuse some of the tension at that first book study meeting.

And fortunately, thanks to that call from Don, we had the chance to think about it ahead of time! It’s much harder to do that in the thick of things.

That’s why Talisse thinks we may need the space to contemplate the objections of our opponents from a distance. Not disengagement, but contemplative engagement, as an addition to and in the service of our political practice – an intentional and contemplative resistance to ourselves, and to our tendency to fall prey to the forces of belief polarization.

In spiritual terms, doing that amounts to seeking the higher ground, of listening to and learning from, our critics, the higher ground that lies in the direction of a sturdier, and wider, common ground – and in the process, extending a more spacious, open, albeit maybe less cozy, umbrella – under which to work together for truth, justice, and the common good.

It’s a demanding prescription. But a hopeful one.

So as we tread the path of resistance, let’s commit to making time and space to resist ourselves along the way.

Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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