Civic Conversations and Social Inequality
Civic conversations, as I see it, are not about the “exchange of ideas” (our thoughts are not commodities) or about winning debates (we are we selling things), but are about what we jointly discern as urgent issues. How we approach these issues of course, depends on who invites whom to the conversation. If we want to deal with social inequality, who invites whom makes all the difference in the world.
In Aristotle’s famous two books on friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, he states that un-equals can be friends, if they figure out what reciprocity would look like for them. If parents give their children money, for example, reciprocity would not require that the children repay their parents with money, but rather with gratitude and honor. The point about reciprocity, as Laurence Becker has said, is about balanced social relations.
Much of the inequality we see around us violates this principle of balanced social relationships. So, if we went to engage in civic conversations, we need to re-balance them.
Here is where the “you” come in. I don’t mean you, but rather the second person pronoun “you.” Most of the time, we treat ourselves as an “I” or a “me” or maybe a “we.” We actually cannot treat ourselves as a “you.” Someone else must do that. We only become a “you” when someone addresses us with a question or some other invocation. The question “What do you think?” can enable another to become a “you.” A you-you relationship may be a necessary condition for real civic conversations. (Martin Buber called it an “I-Thou” relationship, and he is certainly one source of these reflections)
If “I” cannot make myself a “you,” then I am dependent on the invitation of the other. If others have been disadvantaged by social imbalances, how likely is it that they will invite those of us who have benefited from the imbalances into a civic conversation? Isn’t it the case that those of us in privileged positions need an invitation (that’s the only way we can enter into you-you relationships) but that our benefiting from social inequalities make such an invitation unlikely? So, what can we do?
Deeper than our social inequalities resides a common humanity. We are all living now, for example. We are contemporaries. We have attachments and we need provisions. We need protection. Our grandchildren inherit the same planet. We face new beginnings and we face death. What these events mean, of course, depends a lot on our social worlds, but our common humanity is more than these social worlds.
The problem is that this common humanity has been violated by slavery, wars, and imperialism. If we want it to become a foundation for engaging in dialogue with others, it needs to be repaired. It may be that we cannot effectively deal with our social inequalities until we repair the violations of our common humanity. What that repair would require is an open question—a question that might get us an invitation to engage in civic conversations.