Karin Fry is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Her new book, Beyond Religious Right and Secular Left Rhetoric: The Road to Compromise, explores the positions commonly advocated by culture war adversaries, searching for opportunities for reconciliation.
ECM: Much of your work has focused on philosophers like Arendt, Lyotard, and Kant, but recently you’ve been studying contemporary culture war debates. What inspired that interest?
KF: In some ways, I just fell into it. I was asked to do something about religion for an on-campus event and the reaction was so positive, it inspired me to continue. However, I have increasingly become interested in political discourse, since students are overwhelmed by it. In my teaching, I found that students would mimic whatever pundits were currently saying about a topic, without really thinking about it.
Hannah Arendt in particular is a thinker who recognized the danger of this, and even though she does not discuss religious topics at any length, my book fits nicely with some of her views. She believed in legitimate differences of opinion in politics and the importance of maintaining venues for discussion and disagreement. In my classes, I think it is very important to give students resources for negotiating the flow of information to help them think for themselves.
ECM: It does seem that much of our political discourse has been reduced to an exchange of overheard talking points. I wonder if you could speak to the danger this poses, and how Arendt has influenced your approach. Are there any particular issues or debates that you find especially troubling?
KF: I think what is most troubling is the massive amount of false information that is distributed by political operatives and marketers that is accepted as true.
Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to research an issue and find out the complexities about it. With a sound bite culture, the facts become obscured and people make decisions based upon falsehoods and superficial understandings of an issue.
Often, people think that if they find out the facts a clear-cut answer will emerge, but more often than not, further examination shows the legitimacy of more than one position on the issue. Arendt worried about people talking in stock phrases and clichés rather than trying to think through an issue. The road to totalitarianism relies on lack of discussion and operatives who will accept the party line, rather than question it.
EM: Walter Lippmann once argued that the public could not be expected to follow political debates because people don’t have time to study them in all their complexities. These days, categories like “religious right” and “secular left” serve as shortcuts. It’s easy to align yourself with people like yourself – and against their declared adversaries. What could go wrong?
KF: It’s totally understandable why people would want shortcuts and why they are necessary to a degree. What goes wrong is that politics becomes a set of monologues filled with negative perceptions of the opposition, rather than actually engaging in dialogue to find solutions and compromises. My book shows that those aligned with “religious right” and “secular left” don’t correctly understand each other’s agendas and can sling mud, but cannot move beyond that. I fear that this is the case with many other politically charged debates in America. Therefore, we get stuck in rumor, innuendo, and playground insults rather than seeking out areas of commonality.
Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.