Friday, February 10, 2017
John Allen Jr. is always worth reading, and he has a lovely reflection comparing "two different Americas" through the lens of New York City's "two Dolans" -- the Knicks owner (angry and confrontational) and the Cardinal (open and committed to friendship despite disagreements). He identifies as a "defining quality of [Cardinal Timothy Dolan] a relentless determination to keep lines of communication open, never to demonize or alienate anyone, and to demonstrate that one can have strong convictions without forever going to war against people who don’t share them." The roots of this quality are best captured, according to Allen, by a story the Cardinal tells about his dad:
My dad was a very upbeat guy, with a tremendous sense of humor, who would always see the best in people. The kind of people that others didn’t get along with, he liked. It was almost like he wanted to give them a chance … Dad’s philosophy of life was that if you can get somebody on a lawn chair, outside on a Sunday, while he was doing pork steaks in the barbeque pit, listening to Harry Caray and the Saint Louis Cardinals in the background with a bottle of Busch, you could win over anybody. There’s nobody that if you eyeball, and really start talking to … rare would be the person with whom you could not find common ground.
This beautifully conveys the attitude of civil friendship, which calls citizens to live the virtue of solidarity within the political community. As illustrated by the Cardinal's recollection, we are to assume the good will of our neighbors; not make our relationships with our fellow citizens contingent on political agreement, worldview alignment, or personality compatibility; and recognize that connections across difference and disagreement are intrinsically valuable, not just instrumentally advantageous. But how do we embody this spirit when so little of our social interaction takes place in any sort of face-to-face venue, much less on lawn chairs around the barbeque pit?
One obvious (but by no means easy) answer is to reallocate and reprioritize our time toward the face-to-face. We should do that, early and often, but that will only go so far in terms of shaping the society-wide perceptions of politics- and worldview-driven division and alienation. The front porch and neighborhood coffee shop are not going to reemerge as the primary venues for engaging our fellow citizens across our differences anytime soon. As such, it is absolutely vital that scholars, community advocates, clergy, politicians, and neighborhood grill masters spend time thinking and sharing ideas about how we talk to each other across difference, especially when those exchanges are facilitated by technology, not by adjoining back yards. I mean more than internet etiquette, I think. Can emerging technologies actually help use digital tendencies to promote face-to-face relationships? (I'm thinking, for example, of apps like Next Door.) Can technology make local politics more accessible -- and appealing -- to residents? Can opinion leaders change the tone and expectations of political engagement, whether in-person or online, and can the public incentivize them doing so? How can we train young people (and not-so-young people) to embrace vulnerability?
Realistically, true friendship will not be the aim in most political engagement that takes place in a digital world. But an orientation toward friendship should still shape that engagement. That's what civil friendship contemplates; we need to figure out what it looks like today.