In the gardens of Athens in the fourth century BC (planting the seeds of Western Civilization), in the plazas of Florence in the 16th century AD (ushering in the modern era), in the salons of Paris in the 18th century AD (informing and inspiring others in a small meeting room in Philadelphia), to a lesser extent in mid-19th century Concord, MA (informing and inspiring Gandhi and King and Mandela), the genius of a few unleashed new currents of the genius of the many, currents thick with reason and a stronger commitment to our shared humanity, changing the course of human history. It has been done before and it will be done again, whenever and wherever people choose to do it.
They did not gather in those times and places to discuss only how to win this or that election or to shift power from one party to another or to address the human endeavor one issue at a time. Rather, they gathered, with wonder and hope and passion, to explore and discover, to create and innovate, to raise reason and our shared humanity onto a pedestal and dedicate themselves to the enterprise of perfecting our consciousness and improving our existence.
In every time and place, including these ones of particular florescence, most of the people went about their business, engaged in the mundane challenges of life, fought the battles we all fight, both personal and collective. But the great paradigm shifts of history have happened when a coalescence of inspired minds reached deeper and broader than others around them, beyond the individual issues of the day, beyond the immediate urgencies and power struggles, and sought out the essence of our existence, to understand it, to celebrate it, and to change it for the better.
Imagine a gathering of great minds today that were not lost to the minutia of academe or the mud-pit of politics or the selfish pursuit of wealth and fame and power, but were free to devote themselves to the challenge of orchestrating a social transformation, a peaceful revolution occurring beneath the surface of events, a new threshold reached in the advance of creative reason in service to humanity.
Imagine gatherings of engaged citizens that, guided only by the broadly attractive narrative of reason in service to our shared humanity, of emulating our Founding Fathers and fulfilling the vision that they had for this nation, dedicated themselves to learning how to listen to one another and weigh competing arguments rather than regress ever deeper into blind ideological trench warfare. Imagine forming the nucleus of a movement that would extend the logic of methodical reason in service to our shared humanity ever more broadly, not just through direct participation, but through the promotion of the narrative that we are capable of doing so and that it is incumbent on us to do so.
What is stopping us from establishing such gatherings, and such a movement? What is stopping us from bringing together a small cadre of brilliant minds to implement ideas designed to cascade through the social fabric in transformative ways, and large populations of engaged citizens to stir and be stirred by the sea giving rise to those cresting waves of brilliance, together advancing the tide of imaginative reason in service to our shared humanity? Only the precise combination of vision, drive, sophistication and resources that would make it happen, not just in some stumbling and unsustainable or unproductive way, but as a living, breathing, current reality.
I’ve designed the nucleus of an idea, a social movement that is realistic as well as idealistic, a secular religion to promote the narrative and practice of disciplined reason in service to our shared humanity. As a person who learned how to dream as a child; who drifted and worked and lived around the world for several years as a young adult; who became a social scientist, author, teacher, lawyer, public policy consultant, candidate for office, and member of several nonprofit boards and advisory councils; who has done urban outreach work and community organizing; who has synthesized ideas from many disciplines, many great minds, and much experience, this is not a Quixotic quest that boasts much but can deliver little; it is a carefully considered strategic plan for moving the center of gravity of our zeitgeist in the direction of an ever-increasing reliance on imaginative reason in ever-increasing service to our shared humanity.
For a comprehensive (though somewhat dense) presentation of my proposal, please see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.
For a briefer and simpler presentation of the underlying philosophy of this proposed social movement, please see: The Ideology of Reason in Service to Humanity.
For an extremely bare-bones summary of the social movement idea itself, please see: A VERY Simplified Synopsis of “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill”.
For more elaboration of various aspects of this proposal and various musings about it, please see the essays hyperlinked to in the second box at: Catalogue of Selected Posts
The issue of improved public discourse is, ultimately, the most important of all political issues, for it is in the final analysis the means by which reason and justice prevail over irrationality and bigotry, within each of us as well as throughout society. Discourse is challenged along many dimensions: civility, robustness, depth, subtlety, inclusiveness, rationality, factual accuracy, scope, precision, and quantity of information mobilized and assimilated. How kind is it? How productive is it? How well-informed is it? All of these are relevant dimensions to be constantly improved upon.
Discourse takes many forms. As I wrote recently, perhaps one of its most useful and probing forms is satire (Tragically Comical American Political Discourse). Humor can be revealing, as well as enjoyable, and is often most provocative of deep insights of all discursive forms. From Gulliver’s Travels (in which Jonathan Swift gave us the term “yahoos”) to Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22, and beyond, satire often hits the nail right on the head, and leaves us with a smile on our faces while doing so. That’s as good as it gets.
But discourse fights against many dysfunctional structural inhibitors and disinhibitors. Those with the largest audiences are often either incentivized to censor themselves or to inflame uninformed passions. Those who depend on endearing the many and offending as few as possible must avoid taboo topics and controversial positions as much as they are able to, while those who depend on appealing to and cultivating a loyal following must do just the opposite, and pander to their target market (whether sincerely or insincerely), reinforcing and helping to insulate prejudices and unreasoning passions. This bifurcates the most loudly broadcast voices into those that are sterilized by political and strategic considerations, and those that are contaminated by demagoguery.
Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff argued in his book The Political Mind that we need a new Enlightenment, one which does not try to advance the cause of Reason simply by recourse to rational arguments, but one which embraces new insights into how our minds work, and seeks to advance the cause of Reason along the avenues carved out by those insights (recognizing the roles of frames and narratives, of primary and complex metaphors, and working with them in advocacy of Reason and Empathy). But the old Enlightenment still holds its lessons, some of which we should continue to learn from.
The Economist recently published a review of Philipp Blom’s book (to be released in March): “Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris” (http://www.economist.com/node/17358838). The theme of the book is those Enlightenment philosophes who convened in salons to discuss all matters, some of whom refuted the existence of God, despite the dangers of doing so. It was not, overall, a more courageous time than our own, and it was not a time when more people were willing to question the existence of God (Biologist Richard Dawkins, for instance, is one of many famous modern atheists, while Blom critiques some famous philosophes for their own failures to publicly entertain non-religious perspectives). But it is instructive that those committed to reason were discussing over two hundred years ago a reasonable but historically persecuted point of view that is little more tolerated today than it was then.
For the record, I am not saying that I consider atheism to be the final word on the subject (I don’t; I consider the truth to be far subtler, and far less dismissive of the sublime aspects of reality that concepts of divinity address). I am saying that atheism’s continued absence from most spheres of public discourse, along with the absence of subtler but equally unconventional views (e.g., pantheism, Taoist/Buddhist non-anthropomorphic mysticism, etc.), and the continued hold over public discourse and public cognition that the generally reductionist, absolutist, and somewhat superstitious bias of insitutionalized religions continues to command, are evidence of a public discourse unhealthily constrained by cognitive, social, and institutional forces that hinder rather than facilitate a robust and comprehensive public dialogue.
In other words, we continue to put informal “Inquisitions” between ourselves and the pursuit of truth. Galileo, who was basically accurate on every topic he addressed, and certainly more accurate than the Church, was subjected to torture by the Inquisition until he recanted his assertion that Copernicus was right, and the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa. And my own career as a teacher ended when I faced my own Inquisition for having compared cultural to genetic diffusion and innovation in a World Geography class (though I remain convinced that it was one of the best lesson plans my students had ever been exposed to).
Religion isn’t the only topic around which informal barriers to discourse are thrown up, nor do such barriers need to be society-wide to contribute to the constriction and impoverishment of public discourse. Some current trends in political discourse are contributing to further constriction, though in a more balkanized manner. Those with strong ideological views listen to and talk with those of similar views, and avoid those of conflicting views, sometimes quite explicitly (one left-wing ideologue, in a post on SquareState, said he was interested in reasonable criticisms, defined as things unlike what I say, which are too incompatible with his worldview to count as “reasonable”). The “confirmation bias” already making cross-fertilization of differing views difficult, is reinforced by the ability now to get news from, and engage in discourse with, those who already agree with us, making it that much easier to filter out contradictory evidence and analysis. Instead of a society-wide constriction of public discourse, we have a balkanized constriction, in which occasional debates across ideological borders quickly degenerate into angry mutual denouncements and insults.
A sociologist named Mark Granovetter wrote a paper in the 1970′s or 1980′s called “The Strength of Weak Ties,” in which he discussed the value of those network connections that form bridges between social (and ideological) islands. He was writing in a different era (strange as it may seem that so much has changed in so short a time), but captured a truth that transcends the form that our social coalescences take. We still need “weak ties,” bridges across social, cultural, and ideological chasms. We still need some threads of authentic social interaction, authentic dialogue, among as well as within our ideological enclaves.
There should be no taboos, particularly no taboos regarding modes of thought that do not preach hatred or antagonism of any kind. There should be no privileging of fixed ideologies. We need to work as a people toward promoting a society-wide public discourse that does not presuppose the conclusions, neither on the left nor the right nor in any other location of our complex ideological space. We need to continue to cultivate a commitment to reason, to analysis, to reliance on carefully acquired and verifiable information. No political challenge is more important, no advance more beneficial to our long-term collective welfare than advances in our ability to participate in a robust and unconstrained public discourse, with reason, humility, and goodwill as our guiding lights.