On Tuesday, January 26, we hosted a webinar to discuss unity and the common good. How realistic is unity? Exactly what is it? How we might strive toward it in ways top-down and bottom-up, and what precisely is the good inherent within it, if any?
Featuring Christina Emba, Shadi Hamid, and Samuel Kimbriel, the discussion was moderated by Anne Snyder. Here is a transcript from that evening.
Anne Snyder: These are wild times. I want to ask: How do each of you define unity? It’s a word that has been in the air this last week, and in some ways from the beginning of this nation. What is it? And maybe just as important, what isn’t it?
Christine Emba: I know that this is a very “high school essay” thing to do, but I thought that I would actually define unity using the dictionary. Merriam-Webster would tell us that there are three main options to define unity.
One is “the state of not being multiple”—so, oneness, which is not my favorite definition. The second is “a condition of harmony or accord,” which I think is somewhat better. And the third is “a combination or ordering of parts that promotes an undivided total effect.” That’s actually the literary or artistic definition, which is also my favorite. It points not to sameness, as the first definition would say, but simply to being ordered towards something together. Contributing in our own different ways towards a commonly-held understanding of the good, or at least a goal.
Unity points not to sameness … but simply to being ordered towards something together.”
That’s actually what I think unity is, properly defined. It doesn’t necessitate a flattening or an indivisibility, but simply having the same aim in mind.
Anne Snyder: Shadi, what do you think of that?
Shadi Hamid: At the most basic level, I see unity as the state of not being divided. Somewhat similar to the first definition that Christine mentioned. I personally am not the biggest fan of unity, and we’ll unpack why that might be.
I was reminded a couple of hours ago just how hegemonic the word unity is. A friend of mine saw that I’d posted this event on Instagram, and he texted me like, “Shadi, what are you thinking, man? How could unity possibly not be a good thing? Are you some sort of monster?” He didn’t say that I was a monster, but that was the implication.
I think that’s how most Americans, the NPR listener type, think. They just assume that unity is a good thing, and the very idea of questioning it is odd.
The musical analogy is a good one here, because when I think about the idea of harmony, it makes me nervous. If we want to avoid certain definitions, maybe that’s one we don’t want to aspire to. That may be because I like music that has a kind of dissonance, that has an edge to it.
The basic issue is what Christine said about trying to be ordered to a common aim or to a common approach as citizens. That would be nice in theory. I’m just very skeptical that it’s possible in practice, because we as Americans—and throughout the world, a lot of societies—are growing more diverse. We don’t share as much as we might have done before. One or two hundred years ago, many societies, especially in the West, were more homogenous on religious, ethnic, and ideological grounds. Now we’re less so.
So in that sense, how can we be ordered to a common aim when we have foundational differences that divide as Americans? We don’t share the same premises. We don’t share the same first principles.
How can we be ordered to a common aim when we have foundational differences that divide as Americans? We don’t share the same premises. We don’t share the same first principles.
But I would add, I don’t think we should necessarily share the same premises. Because if our differences come from a place of conviction— whether that’s religious or ideological conviction—I worry that when we talk about unity, we’re basically asking people to put aside their deepest convictions in the name of the greater good.
Anne Snyder: Thanks, Shadi. We’re going to get into what you just said and some of your nerves around it. But first: Sam, do you think of unity in the ways these two are defining it? And also, do you think of it as a uniquely American ambition in the history of nations or of civilizations? Or is it always necessary for any kind of group survival?
Samuel Kimbriel: I’d actually like to start pre-political. It seems to me that the question of unity, in a lot of respects, is the primary question that started philosophy going. It was the question of whether things are first of all disharmonious—in basic, fundamental conflict, in a war against one another—or whether they have a primary way that they do actually coordinate and come together in a basic sense.
This question ends up being a prompt for reflection on reality generally, and then that flows into how we think about societies. I share a lot of Shadi’s worries about prematurely thinking that society is united. It seems to me that the question of how you might bind together as a population is actually one of the fundamental and hardest questions of political philosophy as a whole. But we have gotten off on the wrong track in terms of how we think of unity.
There are two different models. There’s the model of thinking about a society as a machine, a whole bunch of different parts that have to be designed and organized in the right way so that they have a coherence with one another. That tends to be our primary model.
The other common model is to think about society more like an organism, specifically like a tree. There are diverse parts, and they don’t obviously fit together. But somehow the basic coherence of the organism—something that is not created within society, but precedes it—can then flow into how the society works.
That’s the point where our crisis sits. We don’t actually understand how anything that’s pre-political, or deeper than politics, can flow into our society any longer. And as long as that question can’t be answered, you’re going to end up with the view that we’re simply a machine with all the pieces falling apart.
It does seem to me that a theory of unity is implicit in every successful society. Societies think about how to hold themselves together, and most notable works of political philosophy or political theory actually begin with that. They say, “Hey, why are we not all just a bunch of people who are at war with one another?” And the way that they try to work out their specific answer to that question seems to be the way that societies branch out in different directions.
Anne Snyder: Pulling on this nervousness around a mis-sequenced understanding of unity, when we think about a nation or a society bounded by a set of ideals, could you name a little more explicitly the dangers that you see? Not just theoretically, but what is going on that is making you uncomfortable today?
Shadi Hamid: When we talk about unity, we have to ask a second question: on whose terms? Who decides what constitutes this unity? This is where power relations become relevant. It’s those who are culturally hegemonic who decide what this unifying source is and what values all Americans should buy into. We even saw a bit of this in Joe Biden’s inaugural speech.
When we talk about unity, we have to ask a second question: on whose terms? Who decides what constitutes this unity?
In some ways I don’t fault him for talking a lot about unity. If I was president, that’s what I would do. But at one point he alluded to a major divide in American history between the forces of progress and the forces of bigotry. And that gets at the problematic aspect here: if I was a Trump supporter, one of the 74 million—for better or worse there are a lot of them in this country—and I was listening to Joe Biden talking about unity, I would take him to mean implicitly that the loyalty of the many Trump supporters to the unifying values is in doubt. Because they’re the ones who are tied to a racist ex-president.
That’s one problematic implication. And we’re seeing a move towards a new kind of conformity. We see this with tech companies adopting rules that constrict speech in some ways. I think that sometimes they’re justified—I personally supported the ban on Trump on Twitter. But if this keeps on going, and now that we have cultural power and political power on the center-left or the left, there are temptations to go too far. That’s what I get concerned about.
I should also clarify that at a very basic level, there obviously have to be some things that Americans agree on. Where I differ from a lot of people is that I want those to be as minimal as possible. I want a low common denominator. So for me, the major thing that I expect all Americans to sign onto, regardless of anything else, is respect for democratic outcomes, and certain democratic ideals that are implicit or explicit in the American story. That’s fundamental. Because if you don’t respect democratic outcomes, there’s no way to regulate or manage conflict. And we saw how dangerous that was with the Capitol insurrection. If you have a chunk of the country that isn’t willing to respect the legitimate results of an election, then you have no way of regulating who rules and who has the right to power.
Christine Emba: Of course, I’m always ready to jump in and get into a fight with Shadi, so we’ll just get right to that. I want to push back on your qualm about the idea that unity assumes people are coming from the same premises or have the same background. That’s what I was trying to say that I’m not particularly interested in —the idea that everybody must have the same background, the same religious beliefs, the same favorite color, the same presidential favorite. There is a distinction to be made between premises and aims. We can all have different premises, but I do think that most people, and most Americans, can in fact aim for the same things.
I actually think Joe Biden made a pretty useful and safe statement at his inauguration. I’m not sure what part you were thinking of, but I’m looking at a quote here where he says, “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal” and the harsh reality that that’s not the case. So on some level I would actually say that the definition of unity that I have might even be on a lower—or some might say even higher— level than your qualification, which is a belief in democratic norms.
The most important component in the unity in a political state—certainly in America today, where we are not a homogenous state and do disagree on many things, including religion, including political beliefs—is just the basic belief in equality. In human dignity. In, as you say, treating people with respect. That is a far more important ground-level definition that would allow people to unify, if not in personality, background, or religion, then at least in some understanding of how we treat each other and what we should ideally want for ourselves—and for other people who we assume to have the same value as ourselves.
We ask for government to provide a lot these days. But if we think about what governments are for, they’re actually meant to provide for very basic needs—or not even necessarily provide them, but at least try and ensure them for all members of the state or nation. Many of these needs are pretty low on our hierarchy of needs, and they are things that most people could agree with, whether they come from different religions or different places: People want to be able to have families, people want to be able to feed their children, people want to be able to live unmolested. What is unifying, I think, would be to assume that everybody is allowed to have these things. And that’s where unity has most often fallen apart in the United States. Certain groups have been denied those very basic opportunities.
Shadi Hamid: Christine, could I add a very quick follow-up? In theory, if you polled the vast majority of Americans they’d say, “Yeah, equality is great. Who could argue with that?” The problem is, we as Americans don’t agree on what equality actually means, or what justice actually means, or on definitions for any of these words that seem self-evidently good. From the very moment that Trump won, there was a move in some quarters to say that anyone who voted for Trump was by definition a bigot or someone who was empowering racism. By that kind of approach, tens of millions of our fellow citizens would be considered outside the fold—people who don’t believe in equality. Even though if you’d ask them personally, they’d probably say they did believe in equality.
So I don’t think that we would even come to the same agreed-upon definition of equality or progress or racial justice. And racial justice in particular has become a lightning rod between left and right, where even reasonable never-Trumpers or people who don’t like Trump a lot on the center-right are very much opposed to the “woke” move that we see on the center-left and left.
Samuel Kimbriel: Can I ask you one question on this? I’m interested in how we develop or go about the process of moving forward in our ideals. It does seem like there may be a basic set of assumptions that people now, at this very thin slice of history, can agree on. But when you read enough history you realize both how parochial that agreement is and how tenuous. How many people don’t agree with, to take what you were saying, even what a family is or how it might have come about.
Now, as the parameters of debate around one of those minimal ideals stretch out and we find ourselves disagreeing in certain respects, one of the things that strikes me is that we have very, very limited resources for having any kind of debate once those ideals start to be questioned.
We seem to have very, very limited resources for having any kind of debate once minimal ideals start to be questioned.
So I’m curious what the implicit assumption is in terms of how we arrive at ideals, and then how we might go about adjudicating or developing them if we do find ourselves in conflict.
Christine Emba: We’ve moved to the meta part of the conversation extremely quickly. How do we adjudicate these basic ideals? I think that’s actually the hardest part of this fight for, or discussion of, unity. Perhaps the most flawed and somewhat damaging assumption—and I think Shadi was getting at this earlier too—is the idea that unity means a place of stasis, where we’ve all agreed on one thing, and now we are all of one mind and all the same. We have the same premises; we have the same beliefs.
The best calls to national unity—and I’m quoting Richard Hughes here via David Brooks’ column—are in fact arguments. Arguments about what these ideals are. Arguments about how we can best reach them. Arguments about what they might look like in practice. When I talk about equality and participation, part of what I’m thinking is simply that every person should be allowed to take part in these arguments. Every person’s vision of the good and understanding of who they are as a human and what they want to be valued can be in some way taken into account. They may have to press for it. They may have to—hopefully civilly—argue their case. But the fact that they are respected as a person and a part of the community means that they are allowed to take part.
The best calls to national unity are in fact arguments: Arguments about what those ideals are. Arguments about how we can best reach them. Arguments about what they might look like in practice.
I can see where these worries are coming from—that Trump supporters, say, are being seen as almost not people, not fit to take part in the conversation. The people with a differing view of family might not be fit to take care of children or fit to adopt, et cetera, et cetera. That is actually what we want to push back against. We want to push back against spurious definitions of unity that in fact close the boundaries of our state and country and leave citizens outside. Does that make sense?
Anne Snyder: You answered the question I was going to ask: Is unity a collective state of being or a collective mode of action? In other words, do we need to do a better job of agreeing or a better job of disagreeing? So then the question is, what are the institutional containers and vehicles to allow either one of those to be trained and to occur peacefully?
Shadi Hamid: Part of the problem is that increasingly, at least in my lifetime, I feel like Americans have become more uncomfortable with the idea of difference. We see difference, and our instinct is to paper over it, dismiss it, transcend it, or resolve it. I don’t think any of those things are appropriate. I don’t think differences should be resolved. I think they can be managed, but in a way where we respect deep differences. We take them as a given, they’re there in society, and they come from a place of conviction.
Then the question is what we do with that. And my answer would be that we say, “Hey, I’m not trying to convince you that you’re wrong and I’m right on these deeply-held first principles.” I’m going to listen to them, and I’m going to say, “Hey, I think that’s bad, but I’m going to try to understand where it comes from through your standpoint.” And if we speak frankly and openly about those differences, then it’s possible to actually live together.
But the problem is, that’s a very hard thing to do in our current context for a lot of complex reasons. One of them is technology and social media, but also the fact that more and more Americans are—at least relative to decades ago—well-educated and politically inclined. We have more people who see politics as a hobby. And unfortunately with lower levels of religious observance—specifically Christian observance as the largest religion in the country—be careful what you wish for, because as Christianity declines, we have an ideological vacuum. Something’s got to take its place, and what’s taking its place, in my view, isn’t necessarily better. People are basically attributing theological intensity to political debate.
I don’t think politics should be theological. I think the more important things in life are family, friends, religion, faith, whatever spiritual practices—it could differ from person to person. It doesn’t have to always be about God. But we’ve especially seen this during COVID, that people can’t really just take a step back, chill, and focus on what I consider to be the more important things.
That means politics becomes a space of endless combat, and I don’t think that’s the initial aim of politics. Politics should be, at least in theory, not about things that are final—not about things that have a permanent effect. I think the things that have permanent effect are religion, heaven, hell—or, if you don’t believe in them, then perhaps nothingness.
So how we conceive of difference, how we deal with deep difference, is the fundamental question.
Is difference a problem to be solved? Or is it a reality to be accommodated in a spirit of respect and mutual accommodation?
Anne Snyder: Are we back to tolerance, like the early 2000s, when it comes to fierce moral disagreement?
Shadi Hamid: No, no.
Anne Snyder: I was just thinking back to a buzzword of a lot of our youth. I want to just get a little more pointed here, to get clear on the very real fault lines I think we all feel at different degrees depending on where we are socially, geographically, et cetera. Over the last few years, quite a few people have come into contact with a deep dread. Sometimes it’s a low, vague, tiring ache that you don’t quite know how to put your finger on, and sometimes it’s drawn more acutely into this really sharp fear of the abyss of our divides in our country, when you experience them.
Because of what I do for a living, I’ve been a part of lots of gatherings to talk about our divisions. There are moments when I’ve felt what many people have felt, which is: could we actually descend into a second Civil War? And whenever I think this and say this out loud, people older and smarter than me will remind me that it’s almost impossible to think that through, because weapons are so different and geographic realities are so different than the 1860s. And it’s also hard to envision anything that would involve just two sides.
But I think in the heat of the last few weeks in the U.S. since January 6th, we’ve all felt some intensifying, pressurizing force that squashed complexity and nuance where a “but” or a “both, and” is just not allowed. I was feeling this almost at a level I couldn’t quite articulate a few weeks ago when the insurrection on the Capitol occurred. I just thought, “Look, I don’t know if logistically a war is actually possible.” And I hope it isn’t.
But if there were one, and if it were binary, you do have to make a choice. And nuance goes away, and you have to choose what you see as the moral good. As I was thinking about this, I was wondering, “What would actually be the fundamental fault lines between sides?” I thought initially that it would be between those who believe in and want to fight for the dignity of all—this is related to Christine’s point about dignity—and those who feel like they can’t because to do so would somehow be to shut down their own dignity in the process. But then I thought, “No, that just takes us back to liberalism versus illiberalism, somehow.”
I say all of that runway to just ask, what are the most foundational divides as you see them? Divides that must be overcome if we’re ever to maintain something smacking of a peaceful commons? (And we haven’t even talked about the difference between commons and unity.) Which foundational divides could be left alone, or at the very least tolerated? Unbridged, and yet we would still hang together? Could you name the things that allow us to snap as a society?
Christine Emba: I think that you hit on the question really well, or perhaps the answer. I was thinking of the reasons why people might be afraid of the question of, what is unity, or what is the common good. Why it is in some ways frightening to talk about that. The United States in particular does have a history of leaving people out of the common good. Outside of any conception of unity. Outside of any conception of equality.
I don’t necessarily mean equality in a metaphysical way, although I sort of do—I mean the very basic equality of being able to walk on the same sidewalk, or drink from the same water fountain, or be seen as 100% of a person instead of three-fifths of one.
I think when people ask about who is deciding here, they fear either being left out on the one end, because there is remarkable precedent for that here, or—and we talk about America having an original sin very frequently but I think it’s an extremely true analogy—they have an underlying fear of things being done to them that they, or their ancestors, or people in parts of American history that they relate to more closely, did to others.
I’m thinking, for example, of the reflective fear of voter fraud, or voter disenfranchisement. Or this fear that if we give some people welfare, it will be taken from us. That if we acknowledge that black lives matter, then white lives are going to start mattering less.
When we think of unity as a zero-sum game, and when we think of goodwill and the commons as in fact not a common space but something that is taken from one person and given to another, something that’s not shared, that is where a lot of fear can erupt and has erupted in our society.
One of the things that is anathema to any real discussion of unity is falsehood. Untruth. Politicians and leaders continue to state the claim that somebody will be taking something from you, that you are losing something, when in fact that’s not happening. That is not what America must do in the future. There are other possibilities.
To have any possibility of unity, you have to be engaging in good faith. That also means that you have to assume that other people are also engaging in good faith, that they are not necessarily out to get you. That they are doing the best that they can for generally plausible—or at least good to them— reasons. There’s a difference between argument or conflict that is productive—that is moving towards something—and argument or conflict for no reason, for the sake of a lie, a falsehood, an untruth. Or, in Shadi’s description, people who are just a little bit too obsessed with politics and have nothing else to do, so they cause trouble on Twitter for fun. That pointless activity, that activity based on falsehoods and false premises, is what actually tears unity apart. Because there’s just nothing behind it. There’s nothing that anyone could come together on.
Anne Snyder: That’s beautifully said, Christine. Thank you.
Shadi Hamid: I think Christine gets at something really important, which is the zero-sum nature of American politics today. I don’t know how you undo that, and it might be too late to undo it. Once things really set in and become entrenched in the body politic, you’re stuck with it to a large extent, unless you have very powerful forces that are able to reverse it. So if we have the zero-sum vibe for the foreseeable future, I think one way of addressing it is to try to lower the stakes of politics by de-emphasizing national politics.
This is why I think federalism and localism and other terms that people use—subsidiarity, communitarianism, just thinking more about how to devolve power and redistribute power away from the center—will have to be a focus. Because I think we’re going to have a problem that whichever party wins, the other party is going to see the party in power as an existential threat to their dignity. As Christine alluded to, there is this reciprocal thing.
Not to draw a moral equivalence—I’m on the left side of the spectrum so I think one side is more right than the other, but I can’t necessarily prove that to my fellow Americans on the right side of the spectrum, or Trump supporters, because they don’t share my premises, so we’re stuck in that way—but I do worry about the centralization of power. Not just when we think about government, but when we think about the fact that a few very large, dominant companies are able to structure and shape the way we have national conversations—not to go back to the tech monopoly issue. That’s another kind of centralization that I think is something to be worried about.
Samuel Kimbriel: One of the principal things that worries me, that I think sits behind the potential civil conflict, is a basic kind of fragility that seems to be present in most people, and in most communities, as they kick out into public and national life. That goes to Shadi’s point about the question of how you might distribute good parts of life at levels that are not just a zero-sum game at the national.
But I also think there is a question of why we see conflict at the national level in the lens that we do. It seems to me that we’ve moved from a society—or that there has always been a feature of American society that has preferred to see itself through the terms of will rather than through the terms of intellect. So the will society is one where different groups are just necessarily incommensurable with each other. That might be because they have different interests, it might be because they have different origins, it may be because they simply have different visions of human life. But in some basic sense, there’s an incompatibility. It seems to me that we’re at this point where that is the background assumption of most things that happen at the political level.
And it’s also why people feel really fragile. There is a question of where you go, if you’re outside of everything else. There’s a basic state of alienation in that sense. And that does feel impossible to resolve in a pretty basic way.
To Christine’s point, that fragility has always been there. Our mechanisms for groups that are excluded to come in and say, “Hey, this isn’t working for me. There are things that are not present in our society that are absolutely essential to who I am, to our community,”—there has always been a tone deafness there. But as that model of incommensurable interests has risen to the surface, we find ourselves in a really difficult spot.
The real question that I’ve been trying to work through is, what’s happened to the set of resources that have given us the possibility of working through all this in certain ways? Just after the Capitol thing happened, Shadi and I were texting about the decline of the secularization thesis. The initial sense of the secularization thesis was that society will just get more and more rational, like a machine. It will work better and better, and then all of these superstitious things like religion will just shuffle away.
One of the first moments at the national level where that really began to diminish was after 9/11. Religion is just present, and a very significant feature of public life. So people are like, “Well, this might be different.” I think we see it in a different way now, which is that the resources that we’ve assumed to hold us together are somehow not mechanical resources. They’re not about how you design the system. There’s something else. There’s something about how we trust one another, what holds communities together, what the aspirations of human life are. And it seems to me that the apparatus that we have fixing the machine part of society just cannot fix that much more fundamental, organic part.
Whether we can find those resources is an extremely hard question, but it does seem to me that that’s the place to start looking. If there is a way out of this zero-sum, triumph of will over will thing, it’s going to have to be in trying to figure out what those background resources are that don’t have to do only with control.
Anne Snyder: I’m going to be chewing on that for a while, Sam. Thanks. I’m going to turn to the audience questions now: “Cancel culture is a very frightening reality at the moment. How can people feel safe to have productive dialog and build unity when people are afraid to engage in discussions that have conflicting ideas on opposing sides? Having safe spaces to discuss issues, no matter how opposing, is important to move the hearts of people to change their thinking and misconceptions.”
I’m going to put a sub-question under that from someone else, namely, “Is it ever appropriate to say that a voice, a participant, should be shut out of the conversation? Why and how?”
Shadi Hamid: It’s telling that the person who asked about cancel culture identified as anonymous. I think that gets the point across.
That’s a really good question, because I’ve been struggling with this as of late. People generally think of me as having pretty thick skin. I get attacked a lot for a variety of reasons that we don’t have to get into right now. But I’ve even found that for myself, the last few months have been even more difficult than usual. I feel like it’s taken a personal toll on me. I’m becoming more careful about what I say online in a way that I feel goes against my sense of self, which is a bit sad. But also, this is the real world, and we decide what battles we want to fight and how we want to spend our time.
Actually, just earlier today, I tweeted something which wasn’t even controversial, but some people didn’t like it. I’m just like—do I really want to be getting into this kind of conversation when I have other things that I have to focus on? So I deleted my tweet. I don’t know what you want to call that. But I think that there’s always this pressure to read the room. People kept on telling me over the past six months, “Shadi, we see the point you’re making. We kind of agree with you, but is this the right time? Read the room, man.” And I’m like, “Okay, fine, but which room am I supposed to read? Where do I find the room? How do I know how to read it?” And so on and so forth.
I’m someone who likes intellectual combat. I worry about people who aren’t used to it. They’re going on Twitter and they’re seeing how vociferous the nature of debate is, and how personal and ad hominem people get, and they say, “Listen, I don’t want to share what I really think.” I think a lot of us get DMs or messages on private group chats where people say, “Hey, I’m not comfortable saying this in public.” And there’s been a lot of interesting survey research over the past year about how large numbers of Americans say they’re not comfortable saying what they think on big issues. That’s pretty frightening.
Christine Emba: Two thoughts here, more responding to Shadi, perhaps, than directly to the question. But one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is American precarity and how afraid so many Americans are—rightly, frankly—at losing their jobs and then losing their house, losing everything, and having nothing. There’s no safety net and no support, and our welfare system is nearly nonexistent. I come at this somewhat from the left, as you can probably tell. And this overwhelming fear of cancel culture is a symptom of this, and for good reason. If you think that by speaking your mind you might lose everything and be left with nothing, that’s pretty scary. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to speak your mind, and I find it hard to blame people who do actually fear that that is the case.
I think that it’s more the case for everyday Americans than many of the professional speakers who complain about cancel culture in public. Josh Hawley says that he’s being muzzled from the front page of the fourth largest newspaper in the United States. I think he’s fine. But for everyday, normal people that’s a verifiable fear, and I can understand that.
About what Shadi said—about reading the room and being advised to read the room by other people—I think the inability to read the room, or in fact gain an understanding of the room, is an interesting and unfortunate casualty of social media, actually, and of the way that we constantly thrust ourselves into interactions, not with people we know, not the people who we can assume are interacting with us in good faith, not people whose opinions, in fact, we may even be interested in. There’s this feeling that we must be shouting our opinions into the void. That we should be sharing things not just with our family or friends but with however many millions of followers we have, with however many Facebook friends we have that we may not have even met.
It’s impossible to read the room if the room is the size of the world and you have no idea who’s in it.
And that is, I think, not necessarily the fault of any individual, but it’s the way the medium that we now participate in has shaped things.
Shadi also mentioned this idea of subsidiary, of smaller places and smaller communities. This is one of the places where you can make a really strong argument, actually, for thinking closely about subsidiarity and building your own smaller communities. As I’ve said multiple times, I do really believe that one of the conditions for unity—one of the conditions for discussion that moves forward—is being able to assume that the people who you are in conversation with have some understanding of who you are. Also that they have some inclination toward good faith and that you’re engaging on premises that are real. That you are talking to each other for a purpose, not just to make noise.
So I think we will have to continue to look and look harder for places where we can make this assumption of good faith. And unfortunately, even though social media has taken over many of our lives, that is not a place where good faith can be assumed. Unfortunately, perhaps, even the workplace in this moment is not necessarily the place where good faith can be assumed. And unfortunately, this larger failing—and it’s also just a failing of everyday people who are not perfect—can lead not just to an unpleasant argument with a friend but to losing a job or a position. That is frightening. That is a fault of the larger political structure that we have, but it is something that we have to be aware of. And I’m not sure we have a way to fix that particular issue yet.
Anne Snyder: In some ways that relates to the very first segment of this: the flattening in terms of the word “unity.” This flattening of all the spheres. We haven’t really gotten into this tonight, but there are certain spheres within each of our lives and our civil society that are much more accommodating of deep difference naturally by their very telos, how they’re oriented, to what they’re oriented: a family versus a synagogue versus a workplace versus the norms inherent therein. So anyway, something to talk about vis-à-vis differentiation, localism, and differentiation of spheres.
I just want to end on this note. Breaking Ground, which our listeners will know, and I think you all know, is a platform that was explicitly created in this last year of crisis in collaboration to embody unity and plurality. But we really call ourselves a web commons. So we use all these different words, but we bring what we’ve called two thousand years of Christian social thought and specifically Christian wisdom to the problems of the day. Both to accompany them and to act as a lens to see. To equip people of faith in particular to navigate these times and all that’s being revealed. And perhaps, to reimagine and create something new.
So I bring that up to say that when I think about the word “unity”—the three of you at the beginning of this conversation articulated for me my own discomfort. Perhaps, Shadi, you most of all. Or not discomfort, but some hesitancy. I’m much more comfortable with this notion of the commons vis-à-vis our society. But when I think of the word “unity”—and I know we’re an interreligious group here, but I will speak as a Christian—I think of it as a supernaturally graced reality. And there’s a famous prayer that our founder prayed in the Gospel of John: “that they may be one as you are one.”
So I think of it very much in terms of the church. And obviously those of us in the States are feeling extraordinary fractured in that regard as we look at Christian nationalism et cetera. For those of us who are people of faith—and in this case I’m thinking of our three monotheistic religions, where there is maybe a deeper sense of unity that can’t be perfectly established in the temporal sense, but is nonetheless real—what is the unique invitation in this hour in the US, when it comes to contributing to our nationally, creedal, “more perfect union”? What is the nature of the invitation, if anything? Do we carry gifts for this moment, or do we also bring risks with us that are not good? I’m curious if you could reflect on that. Any one of you.
Christine Emba: Shadi touched on this beforehand, and actually he has a great piece on this in Comment magazine. He’s in some ways an excellent Christian apologist—as someone who’s not a Christian! But I think one of the important things for unity and for an understanding of the commons, and that people of faith can bring to the table, is this understanding that success lies elsewhere. We will never be fully unified here. Which, on a good day, can bring you something of an immunity to disappointment, or at least make disappointment in certain goals or aims feel less like a death blow.
A risk here for Christians and people of faith is that this immunity can disappear—as we’ve seen over the past four years—when faith becomes too aligned to a specific person, a specific regime, or a specific form of politics that we’ve merged too closely with our faith, which should be something else, something separate, something not of this world. So I think there is some experience in holding a shared good, in holding an ideal, in holding out hope for a form of unity, knowing that it may not come in our lifetimes. Knowing that we may not be successful in bringing it, and yet that the world persists and that our faith can persist, despite certain disappointments.
Shadi Hamid: I’m sure Sam will have something to say about this. I mean, he wrote a book about friendship as sacred knowing, and I think that’s relevant here. But from my standpoint I’ll say—and thanks, Christine, for mentioning my piece where I do go into this in more detail. If you’re interested, you can just search for “One Nation Sinful Under God, Comment Magazine,” which Anne is the editor of, so highly recommend the whole issue. But I’m a Muslim who has a deep respect for Christianity and Christian thinkers. And in this piece, I talk about a Dutch theologian who’s really influenced me, Abraham Kuyper. And one major takeaway, to generalize, that we can all take in our own lives, is that we’re all broken. And specifically from a Christian standpoint, one might talk about being broken by sin, being fallen in this temporal world.
I think there’s something important there, this idea that we acknowledge this world, and politics in this world, as a site of uncertainty. There are no final victories in this world, because there’s something very small and modest about this life that we live. If we think about history, the universe, and the power of God, we’re humbled by how small these debates sometimes feel. We’re getting in debates about things that I think a lot of us will realize ten years from now, or decades from now, that we were spending all this time freaking out and getting into fights with people.
And I think at some level there has to be a generosity of spirit where we say, “Hey, we don’t have all the answers.” In Islam, when scholars or clerics issue edicts known as fatwas, they historically have ended their fatwas with the Arabic phrase for “And God only knows.” The idea there is that although you’re a cleric, and you know a lot about God’s word and the corpus of law, at the very end you acknowledge your modesty and the fact that despite all your knowledge, you might still not know the truth. And that in the end, God is the only one who is the true repository of the good and of ultimate truth.
Anne Snyder: Thanks, Shadi. Wow, this is leading to a lovely benediction. A trinitarian benediction I wasn’t even expecting. Sam, do you want to bring us home?
Samuel Kimbriel: I’ll say a couple things. I think one of the tragic things that strikes me about how faith has played into all of this is that it very much has drawn out a sense of ultimacy—that there is something real or true, and that thing is worth dying for, or potentially worth killing for. We see a civic severance, which is intensifying that ultimacy without having the religious convictions that have traditionally gone alongside that, which do have to do exactly with the kinds of things that both Shadi and Christine are talking about.
Despite the losses, despite the potential for profound sorrows, reality is not fragile in the end. There is a resilience and coherence that can endure past a given moment of tragedy, or difficulty, or loss, which I think is the relevant category here. You may well lose political battles, but that’s in fact good.
Just to reference a philosophical source at the end, there’s a refrain that goes throughout Plato’s corpus about Socrates where he keeps saying that it’s better to suffer from injustice than to do injustice yourself. And the basic sense is that that’s true for you. It’s worse for you to end up being someone who is doing injustice than someone who is suffering injustice. Finding the way to be gentle and sensitive to the kind of fragility that people feel—that the desire for ultimacy is coming out but not the sense that reality is coherent—seems to me to be absolutely essential. And in a certain way, that can only be done in the confidence that we do actually have enough internal solidity and strength to be gentle and forbearing with the people we disagree with.
It’s interesting the degree to which all three of us are thinking through the same issue in different ways. How can you cope with very basic fundamental disagreement in a way that has a certain level of dignity to it? And that does mean not being hasty, not foreclosing the level of difference very quickly, but having a certain degree of mercy.
Anne Snyder: On that note—mercy—well, thank you, all three of you, so much. Shadi, Sam, Christine. You’ve been such friends to me, and really intellectual exemplars. And it’s been a real gift to our listeners.
I want to encourage all of you watching to follow their work and their ongoing explorations and tensions, and probably journeys. They may not say the same thing two years from now that they said tonight. But I just want to really thank you for this.
For all of you listening, we’re going to wrap up here. I do have just a little teaser of something to show you. Before we all disperse, I just want to close this evening on this note of unity, and the question mark around it. I just want to close it by sharing a glimpse of a special documentary that Breaking Ground has the privilege of hosting before it’s officially released in a couple of weeks. Fittingly, it’s titled The Reunited States. It’s directed by an award-winning film producer named Ben Rekhi, and it weaves together multiple narratives of those walking their own journeys these last two years—often painful, costly journeys, very vulnerable journeys—to get to the end of themselves and understand the roots of our divisions, and to be part, potentially, of locating together, you could say, the North Star of our redemptive path as a nation.
So I’m just going to close this conversation tonight by sharing the two-minute trailer here, just to whet your appetite, and then invite you to keep eyes peeled for another invitation as we plan on screening it in the next ten days. Also we’ll host a discussion with several of the characters featured. The idea is to take what we’ve heard tonight in this very thoughtful and more cerebral setting down into our lives and neighborhoods, and our own trusted spheres, and perhaps more risky spheres, society and otherwise, and to try to spark a longer-term, continuous conversation about this question of unity. About the commons. About the common good. Whose good? Whose commons? About our politics and so much more than that, about all that is pre-political, and try to extend those sub-conversations inside our kitchens, workplaces, schools, churches, mosques, synagogues, and other forums of faith-seeking understanding that could get us to a more shared palette of questions, even if our answers splinter by context, life experience, social coordinate, moral conviction, et cetera. So I just want to give you a two-minute glimpse of this film.
Anne Snyder: And with that encouragement to reach out beyond your borders and for each of us to be in the business of reconciling all the time, I just want to thank you for taking a drink from our little fountain tonight at Breaking Ground, and to pledge our ongoing accompaniment with you on the journey of the very fraught now, rooted specifically in wisdom from the past. And from there, hopefully you will be equipped, if not downright emboldened, to create something new for tomorrow. Our overarching theme for the next month of essays is, as luck and a splash of intention would have it, the commons. And then in March, we’re going to look toward solidarity and repair. In April, givenness and the gift economy. And in May, the restoration of the human.
I want to once again thank our standout panelists and encourage all of you to follow them if you don’t already, and of course, my colleague, Susannah Black, and Breaking Ground’s great team, Heidi Deddens, Kathryn de Ruijter, Jeff Reimer, and Brad Vanden Boogaard as well as our twenty institutional partners that have made tonight’s event possible. And with every hope for all of you watching, your good health, for the wisdom of your steps and perhaps most poignantly right now, just the navigation of your relationships, we at Breaking Ground wish you goodnight.