One of us is a proud member of the Left. The other rejects the Left. One of us writes sympathetically of Jordan Peterson’s critique of postmodern neo-Marxism. The other does not. One of us is no fan of Marx. The other is. One of us hopes for the election of Bernie Sanders as president of the United States. The other would consider that a tragedy.
In today’s world, this should be enough to establish us as intellectual adversaries with no chance of bridging our divide. We disagree about a lot, and our disagreements hinge on some of the most contentious issues of the day, particularly right-wing populism and Social Justice activism. But after a recent, public 51-letter exchange, it was clear that this was not the case. Indeed, there was no reason that respectful engagement should ever have been foreclosed. This article explains why.
First, we don’t disagree about everything. In fact, in our letter exchange, we “gradually mov[ed] towards a position of unexpected agreement on the moral and methodological priority of the individual; though we … cash that out in very different ways.” Moreover, the one who rejects the Left has nonetheless been supportive of many progressive causes, as evidenced by his writings for The Good Men Project from 2016 to 2018. He is also not entirely unsympathetic to philosophers like Heidegger, Foucault and Nietzsche, who have influenced left-wing postmodern intellectuals over the last half century, and about whom the other has published several sympathetic essays.
In the summer of 2019, one of us proposed an exchange on Letter to discuss social, economic and political inequality, with a particular focus on the leftist mode of critique. The other accepted. During that exchange, we had an opportunity to learn more about our differences of opinion. As a result of our respectful and thoughtful correspondence, we also discovered a mutual commitment to honest intellectual inquiry and a mutual regard for the dignity of the individual and a recognition that social, economic and historical circumstances cannot be ignored when determining how to advance the cause of justice.
We share a vision of open and honest intellectual inquiry and a commitment to the dignity of the individual and the progressive pursuit of better social conditions, to promote human dignity and potential. Perhaps most importantly, in our current age of tumult, we believe that impossible conversations are, in fact, possible.
Reaching across the aisle can often seem like a thing of the past in this time of worldwide hyper-polarized political partisanship. Things have gotten to the point at which even calls for civility are interpreted as apologetics for right-wing or left-wing extremism, which cannot be tolerated in the age of Twitter and Trump. Yet both of us continue to engage with each other, in the belief that civility is not the same as delicacy. Indeed, one of us has also had contentious exchanges with philosophy professor Ben Burgis over capitalism, socialism and the war on terror. Like our own conflicting interpretations of Jordan Peterson’s diatribes against postmodern neo-Marxism, these debates and conversations have been civil, but certainly not delicate.
There is a critical difference between good faith and bad faith engagement. In the former, the goal is to think rigorously and defend one’s position as well as one can, while remaining open to the possibility that one might learn from an adversarial interlocutor. One should welcome critique. One should also strive to be open minded and attempt to engage when someone makes a good argument, even one with which one is not inclined to agree. So, we argue. In good faith and with an open mind.
We know how far apart we are in our outlooks. One of us is an aficionado of Machiavelli, inclined to be pessimistic about humanity’s commitment to dispassionate inquiry, truth and justice. The other is more optimistic, though he remains somewhat Beckettian in his outlook towards progressivism (his motto is fail, fail again, fail better). He feels that progressives need to acknowledge the substantial failure to secure economic fairness which marked the twentieth century, while commending the many victories for women, LGBT people and racial minorities. But in the future, he hopes for, and believes in, the establishment of a left-liberal democratic polity, where democratic deliberation is encouraged and resources are distributed in a more equitable manner to ensure all have a comparable and fair shot at the good life.
In our outrage-fueled age, it seems almost impossible to avoid turning political adversaries into caricatures. We aim to push against that tide, for the sake not only of making our own arguments stronger, but to demonstrate that it is possible to have impossible conversations. We are respectful and civil without being delicate or milquetoast in our arguments.
In the truth we trust—even if that truth remains elusive, and we cannot often agree on what it is.