Let’s say you wanted to host a public conversation that would demonstrate civil disagreement and the search for common ground between two people with seemingly irreconcilable worldviews. Who would you recruit to play the antagonists? Ben Shapiro and Rebecca Solnit? Richard Spencer and Ta-Nehisi Coates? Ericka Hart and Sean Hannity?
How about two white male academics, one a liberal atheist, the other a liberal theologian, and lifelong friends to boot?
This book’s epistolary pairing of Keith Parsons (the atheist, and a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston-Clear Lake) and Paris Donehoo (the theologian, and recently retired pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Elgin, Illinois) is simultaneously inspired and head-scratching. Inspired because Parsons and Donehoo do indeed — through friendly accommodation, intellectual curiosity and collegial goodwill — manage to model an exchange of ideas that remains respectful even as it fails to budge either man from his strongly held beliefs. Head-scratching because the divide between intellectual atheists and intellectual believers — who happen to be old buddies, even — hardly seems to be one of the most divisive of American divides in this most divided of American moments.
Okay, so maybe our current moment isn’t the most divided of American moments. We’d probably have to award that dishonor to the Civil War. And it’s precisely the precedent of the Civil War — and, even more precisely, the prospect of another one — that gives Polarized its sense of moral urgency. (The book’s final chapter is titled “An Unabashedly Alarmist Coda.”)
Much of the book is given over to making the case that yes, things really are that bad, and without a course correction they’re likely to get much worse. The table of contents reads like a debate-team outline in which each author in turn takes a swing at defining terms and strategies in the book’s three sections: “Untruth and Its Consequences,” “No Civilization without Civility,” and “E Pluribus Unum: Community in Diversity.” A common thread in this entirely convincing litany of debauched incivility is the current president of the United States, and though neither author confuses Donald Trump’s uncouth enabling with incivility’s root cause, the president does provide a catalog of symptomatic examples on which to hang their rhetorical hats.
If you’re already appalled by Trump, you’ll be more than familiar with his crimes against truth, civility and community, and you may find yourself wondering why Parsons and Donehoo spend so much time belaboring, however elegantly, the obvious. If you’re not appalled by the president’s crimes against truth, civility and community, then you, of course, are part of the problem. And therein lies the impossible conundrum at the core of this book’s argument: Those who could most benefit from the authors’ earnest instruction — basically to respect science and factuality, recognize mutual humanity, abstain from ad hominem attacks and lead by example — are the very people who have proven most incapable of and uninterested in doing so. Yes, intemperate liberals like Bill Maher, Samantha Bee and Kathy Griffin get the authors’ occasional lash for their part in the ugliness, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the bulk of Polarized’s targets are embodied by the know-nothing minions that have been carefully cultivated by the wingnut right for decades. They are now in full flower, and Donald Trump is their sunshine. Goodwill is not a virtue to which they aspire, nor are they likely to be lectured into compliance.
The enemies of reasoned and respectful discourse, in other words, are not reasonable and respectful people. Parsons hints at this seemingly intractable challenge:
“[W]e seem to run into the same old conundrum: Are there not some persons on the ‘other’ side who are truly despicable and worthy of censure? … What about homophobes who travel to African countries to promote the violent persecution of gays? What about Catholic apologists who continue to downplay, deny, or minimize the horrific depredations of pedophile priests? Don’t such obscurantists, fanatics, theocrats, hypocrites, and bigots deserve condemnation in the clearest and most severe terms?”
Yes, Parsons concludes, they do. The closest to a solution he can come up with is, “The best antidote to bad religion is good religion.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but even Donehoo, the author who’s most inclined to find the good in the religious impulse, is unable to make the case that “good” religion is winning the day.
And again, is the flashpoint divide in American life really between the religious and the irreligious? It doesn’t seem so. Evangelical America’s bedrock support of Trump has proved that its morality and ethics are entirely subservient to political expediency (and, indeed, Donehoo advocates an unlikely severing of the religious from the worldly). The most threatening divides in American life are essentially tribal, a matter of team loyalty. And it is not the job of a team to take pains to recognize the essential humanity that it shares with the other team. It is the job of a team to beat the other team. It’s Trump’s conquering impulse that animates his cult, and the drive to win is unlikely to be countered by calls for civility. Civility, to the would-be conqueror, looks like appeasement at best, surrender at worst. It’s not a goal that both teams share.
It would be deeply unfair to criticize a book for failing to provide a viable blueprint for the restoration of common values that have been under intentional attack for decades. So let’s not do that. Let’s instead appreciate Parsons and Donehoo for what they are: thoughtful exemplars of a lost ethic who care more about commonality than victory. The scoreboard may show that they’re losing badly, but as the better breed of coaches once preached, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. If everyone played the game like Parsons and Donehoo, American society would be much more civil indeed. And if everyone played the game like Parsons and Donehoo, there’d be no need for this Hail Mary of a book.