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Fr. 623

May 7, 2015

If centrifuge and recognition lead to impasse and polarization in public discussion, the question then becomes how we might supplement or altogether supplant these terms in discussion and criticism. As mentioned above, Stout sees in the image of crucible a path forwards for the public sphere, beyond dualities of the kind on which centrifuge and recognition hinge. To wit:

At its best, social criticism is more crucible than centrifuge. It holds together all the appreciations and misgivings that reasonable people in our society feel. It needs to be radical to account for their misgivings, generous in spirit to account for their appreciations, and nonutopian to sustain reasonable hope and cooperative political action among them. In aspiring to such criticism, must I waver unsteadily between the liberals and the communitarians? Not if I can shift debate to a level of specificity where the familiar labels will be pointless (Ethics After Babel, p. 277).

On one hand, Stout seeks to draw attention precisely to the way in which the various elements of a proposition hang together, separating only with difficulty. Much the same can be said for the network of beliefs informing a given belief and on which the latter is parasitic. Despite what we may perceive as ill-fitting joints, both elements and network manage to hold together in a manner which is far from incoherent upon concrete, rather than abstract, reflection. Apart from critical attempts at centrifuge, propositions, networks and people are taken at face value as amalgams of sometimes incongruous parts.

On the other, Stout underscores the need to defuse the “familiar labels” and current dualities in terms of which the elements, networks and people are decomposed and reassembled. Rather than work from a perspective of decomposition and complete reassembly, we should instead operate within the horizons of local transformations of elements, networks and people in a fashion befitting non-utopian political imagination:

We shall transform our social practices and institutions in quite particular ways, exerting some humane control over change that is already underway, or we shall simply find ourselves out of the action. The familiar labels reflect a failure of imagination. They also frustrate the effort to build consensus for specific projects of political experimentation and social amelioration. Yet we go on pinning them on one another or ourselves, in part because it is easier to strike moral poses than come up with morally balanced descriptions and concrete political proposals, and in part because the moral poses of our opponents seem to all out so urgently for censure or satire (just as ours do to them) (idem.).

Moral poses build themselves on just such dualities, such that their ongoing usage obscures commonalities which might otherwise emerge from the consideration of those incongruous parts which can play a vital role in identifying areas of overlap between interested parties. Yet such consideration implies significant work and generosity of spirit, contrary to the ease with which the familiar moral poses come to parties to discussion. By way of example, consider the case of a political humorist such as Jon Stewart. In his best moments, Stewart meets guests halfway on concrete ways of improving or experimenting with current practices (e.g. interviews with Marco Rubio or, in more limited fashion, Bill O’Reilly); at his worst, he reduces his audience to sobbing laughs with incoherent caricatures intended to further, at least to some extent, “us versus them” narratives.

What we need are not moral poses but “balanced descriptions” and “concrete proposals”. In such poses we do naught but recognize well-defined classes which are already readily available to us cognitively, thereby avoiding any serious imaginative work. In a public discourse beset on all sides by impasse, what can we find in the way of “balanced descriptions”?

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