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"Polarization and Talking Across Difference": Elizabeth Anderson in conversation with Alexis Papazoglou (Keywords: Democracy; Populism; Reparations; Pragmatism; John Dewey; Susan Neiman)

White house on hill

This conversation originally appeared in What Matters Most: Conversations on the Art of Living by Anthony Morgan (ed.) (Agenda Publishing, 2023)

This conversation with Elizabeth Anderson asks what it means to be a democratic citizen in a time when we find ourselves divided not only over values, but over facts. As lies, propaganda and fake news have hijacked political discourse on polarizing issues and distracted the electorate from constructive engagement of the problems we face, Anderson looks to thinkers like John Dewey and Susan Neiman in order to reframe democracy as a kind of culture that must be kept alive through civil society.


Elizabeth Anderson is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She specializes in moral and political philosophy, social and feminist epistemology, and the philosophy of the social sciences.


Alexis Papazoglou is Managing Editor, LSE British Politics and Policy blog and host of “The Philosopher & The News” podcast. He writes on the intersection between philosophy, politics and current affairs.

Alexis Papazoglou (AP): In his inauguration speech, President Biden said, “Let’s begin to listen to one another, hear one another, see one another, show respect for one another”. Your 2019 Uehiro Lectures at the University of Oxford are about the ethics of communication, and you try to articulate the conditions that would make possible a constructive discourse across political and identity divides in order to enhance our democracy. One of the things you focus on is what has gone wrong with our discourse around facts, with talk of “alternative facts”, “fake news”, and even a “post-truth era” in which a shared reality of facts is no longer available as a starting point for political discourse. How did we arrive here?


Elizabeth Anderson (EA): This kind of polarization of facts has been going on for several decades now. Much of it was initially driven by right-wing media, but the more recent driving force has been social media and their use of algorithms to amplify polarizing voices and outrage. The algorithms have discovered that polarizing discourse holds people’s attention on these sites, and the longer you pay attention to something, the more money social media companies make on their advertisements. So those are the voices that get amplified. How do you generate polarization? By telling lies or presenting facts in a very misleading way that arouses fear and anger. This process has been commodified and commercialized. It’s driving us into unreality.


AP: You mention certain emotions that can be problematic in how we conduct speech and communicate with each other, like anger and fear. But when it comes to certain marginalized, even brutalized, communities, might one argue that some of that emotional response is justified? And, if so, how do we try and manage these emotions and bracket them in some way so that we have a more constructive discussion about changing things?


EA: It is of course totally justified for people to, say, be outraged at police violence against people of colour – and indeed against anyone. The issue here is which emotions to express and to foreground when one is communicating to fellow citizens who disagree. To throw back anger at them is ineffective because it’s just going to raise their hackles. It also represents a failure to understand where they’re coming from because they’ve got fear too. Just look at “Defund the Police” or discourse about gun control. What we have to understand first is why the other side finds it important to support the police and to purchase guns. Fear is driving this, and when people are afraid, their cognition shuts down. They don’t want to hear statistics about how people use guns mostly to kill themselves, their family members, or their friends and neighbours. Rather, what they feel is that there is a lot of real crime and real danger, so police and guns are part of the solution to that. In order to have an intelligent conversation across differences, you have to be receptive to and show empathy for the fact that other people are in other situations that they perceive as threatening and dangerous. If you don’t hear that, they just think that you don’t care about them.


AP: One of the things you diagnose as part of the current discourse is something you call the populist economy of esteem, where esteem is represented as a zero-sum game. If you gain esteem and I don’t like you, then I thereby lose esteem. Can you tell me a little bit more about this concept and its impact on current discourse?


EA: Let’s step back and think a little bit about right-wing populism, which is now a worldwide trend across almost all democracies. Right-wing populism is a mode of activating or mobilizing political support through a rhetorical strategy that explains the meanings of political events in terms of “elites” who are betraying the “real people” by promoting the interests and esteem of historically subordinated groups above them. Now, what’s important about populist discourse is that it doesn’t really put forward policies that offer material benefit to the people they’re appealing to. Instead, it’s symbolic, it’s representational: it’s addressing the feeling of cultural decentring and cultural demotion; it’s addressing the resentment that white Christians feel because they believe that elites hold contempt for them because they’re so transphobic, homophobic, racist, and so forth. But this resentment also extends to the people “beneath” them – trans people, gay people, immigrants, people of colour, and so forth – because they feel that those people are being promoted above them in the scale of social respect and esteem. Almost all populist discourse is actually taking place in these symbolic and cultural terms, rather than in material terms, related to, say, how much money people actually get.

Almost all populist discourse is actually taking place in symbolic and cultural terms, rather than in material terms, related to, say, how much money people actually get.


AP: One of the other things you identify is that when we talk about facts these days, there’s always a subtext. We’re not really talking about facts; rather, we’re expressing our identity. You call this identity-expressive discourse, and consider it to be prevalent on both spectrums of the political divide. What exactly is identity-expressive discourse? And is it always bad?


EA: Identity-expressive discourse is any kind of expression that serves to uphold a sense of the dignity and worth of the identity group to which one belongs. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with such discourse in general. Think, for example, of someone wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of their favourite sports team on it. Rather, identity-expressive discourse goes wrong when you use the medium of (purportedly) factual claims to express pride in your own side. In so doing, you are hijacking empirical discourse that is supposed to be attentive to the facts and using it for some other purpose. One of the key features of populist discourse is that it’s all identity-expressive. It has trained people to think that whatever somebody says is simply an attempt to raise the esteem of their own side by means of putting the other side down. So, if you are in that mindset, you are always going to interpret whatever the other side says as some kind of insult, and you are never going to hear the facts for what they are.

One clear example of this is the idea that Covid is a hoax. Trump repeatedly said that the only reason that liberals/Democrats/elites are talking about Covid is to make him look bad! And, of course, because his followers identify with him, when somebody tries to make him look bad, they feel that it is also an attempt to put them down. Through this kind of lens, even the simple act of wearing a mask is perceived as an insult. It is interpreted not as a prudent public health measure based on facts and evidence, but as an insult aimed at a particular group.


AP: Apart from facts, we obviously also disagree about moral values. What are some of the fundamental disagreements around moral values that you see as especially pertinent right now?


EA: I think that disagreement about facts is driven by disagreement about values. If you look at, say, climate change denialism, the question of whether human beings are heating the earth to catastrophic consequences is simply a matter of scientific fact. But people still resist this idea because they are looking ahead to the seismic political implications of this. It is obviously outrageous and horrible to let millions of people die from rising sea levels and burning forests, and the only credible way to deal with climate change is via a massive scaling up of state capacity, changing environmental regulations, changing how utilities work, mandating alternative energy, and so forth. But people who oppose the view that society should be organized in terms of state-directed collective action just do not want to go there. They find it threatening to institute a mode of political organization that is more democratic and egalitarian. They feel safer in a hierarchical mode of organization that stresses the individual, rather than the collective. So they resist. This all comes from what the psychologist (and law professor) Dan Kahan refers to as “cultural cognition”.

There are many ways to measure social identity. But the way Kahan and colleagues do it is through the intersections of two values. The first one is individualism versus collectivism, i.e., do you think that we should just rely on our own resources to deal with problems, or do you think that we need to get together in larger groups and cooperate in a more collectivist way? The second one is hierarchy or egalitarianism. The strongest disagreements are between the hierarchical individualists and the egalitarian collectivists. The former like free markets, hierarchically-organized corporations, and so on, while the latter like equality, democracy, large state capacity, social insurance, and things like that. In short, we have a values war! We all resist threats to our social identities or our fundamental value commitments. As a result, factual information that threatens these identities is something we resist. This is a universal.  

We all resist threats to our social identities or our fundamental value commitments. As a result, factual information that threatens these identities is something we resist.

AP: In terms of bridging this divide, you reference a social experiment to facilitate constructive discourses across political divides along the lines of a citizen jury. You get people to discuss “hot button” issues in a context that strips away the kind of partisan language that fosters negative or positive reactions. In such a context, people can share their personal stories of how they have been affected by certain policies. For example, people who live in metropolitan areas probably don’t know how the policies that they favour can affect farmers, and so on. What is special about these forums that manage to facilitate discourse?


EA: We have excellent evidence both from deliberative polling and from actual assemblies of citizens that it is possible to moderate discussions of politically significant issues in such a way as to orient people to the facts, rather than trying to jockey for position and asserting their moral superiority at the expense of the other side. If the focus is on people talking about their own personal experience, their own lives, and their own struggles – what they know in person, rather than what they have heard on some media source – what you find is that people share those concerns. Everyone is worried about making a living in a pandemic, about the flourishing of their families, about staying safe, about affordable healthcare. These are all common concerns. And once you see that the other side cares about and are coping with the same issues, then you can start a more fact-oriented discussion. The key to opening people’s minds to the facts is to reassure them that their identities are not being threatened, and you do that by listening – seriously listening – to their personal troubles and concerns.

In Republic of Ireland, for example, they adopted a constitutional reform that opens up opportunities for citizens’ assemblies to deliberate on major issues over which, typically, the legislature is gridlocked and cannot move forward. One of the most widely discussed citizens’ assemblies was over whether to liberalize abortion law. The most moving and important elements of these citizens’ assemblies were when they presented testimony from women who had had or had contemplated an abortion. These women talked in rich detail about what was going on in their lives and what was going through their minds when they made that decision one way or another. Some of the women had had an abortion, while some had decided against it. And people listened very respectfully and then they discussed it.


AP: Throughout your lectures, you present the obstacles to a sensible form of public discourse as a problem that is caused by both sides of the political divide. But surely it matters in the end that one side is more often right about the facts – about whether the elections of 2020 were fraudulent or whether climate change is real? Or that one side happens to support a political framework that is more compassionate and more empathetic to begin with, that is likely to be more conducive to addressing questions of justice and suffering?


EA: The biggest point I am addressing is that both sides are looking at what I call second-order questions – i.e. who is better than who? – rather than first-order questions, i.e. those related to problems we need to solve like the pandemic, unaffordable healthcare in the United States, or long wait times to access healthcare in Britain. Everybody has a stake in these problems. We should never ask public policy to adjudicate over who is better than who, especially at the group level. For politicians to do so would be totally contrary to democratic norms. An obvious example of this is Hillary Clinton’s infamous speech in her 2016 election campaign in which she referred to the “basket of deplorables” made up of those elements of Trump’s supporters who she characterized as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, and so on, before dismissing them as irredeemable.

This is absolutely appalling – and not simply because it didn’t work (although, of course, it didn’t), but because it is so contrary to the democratic ethos to do that. Clinton campaigned on the idea that we are better, more empathetic than them. But is she really more empathetic to the people who are gripped by fear? In his 2016 campaign, Trump had a group of so-called “angel moms” follow him from one campaign event to the next. These were women who had family members who had been murdered by undocumented immigrants. So, Trump is stoking fear, he is repeatedly saying that immigrants coming over the Mexican border are murderers and rapists. And of course this is just propaganda. But that doesn’t mean that the fear this generated wasn’t genuine. So, to address people on immigration, the first thing you have to do is to take their fear seriously, even if it is ungrounded. Because to dismiss it is to make them think, “You don’t care about people like us. Don’t tell me you’re the empathetic one, because you don’t care about me”.


AP: That is a really important point. Even if you believe the concerns are unjustified or wrong, you still have to take them seriously or you will fail in talking to the other side. I thought we could close our discussion by turning to your favourite philosopher, John Dewey. Dewey is affiliated with the American pragmatist tradition, and you consider the approach you are taking to the problem of citizen communication to be rooted in a Deweyan pragmatist approach. What do you mean by that? In what way is it pragmatist?

Pragmatism takes a sceptical position on the question of whether we can figure out through pure reasoning what the fundamental moral principles are.


EA: In the context of ethics and political philosophy, pragmatism takes a sceptical position on the question of whether we can figure out through pure reasoning what the fundamental moral principles are. Instead, it wants to replace the quest for a purely rational deduction of first principles of morality with a method of enquiring about which rules we should live by. Dewey thinks (and I endorse this view) that we can test moral propositions in the same way that we test scientific claims. If you propose a certain moral principle, the idea is that you act in accordance with it and see if you are satisfied with the results. People have been advancing certain ideas on how to live for millennia, but when people try to live in the ways they mandate, they tend to learn that there are all kinds of unanticipated and undesirable consequences. We may be able to tinker and modify the framework, to add exceptions here and there, but sometimes you just come to the conclusion that this is not an acceptable way to live. And when it comes to moral enquiry and questions of what we owe to each other, this testing has to take place collectively because a certain rule might be perfectly satisfactory to some, but not to others. And this latter group has to be able to communicate that – sometimes in strident ways. But if the people who are happy with the status quo are also those in a position of power, then they just don’t listen. This is why we need social movements, this is why democracy is on the streets.


AP: For Dewey, democracy isn’t just about voting every four years, or about the institutions of democracy like parliaments, legislatures, and so on. Rather, it is a kind of culture that must be kept alive through civil society. Apart from demonstrating in the streets, what are the ways that we can contribute to the culture of democracy in our day-to-day lives, before we exercise our democratic voting rights when the time comes?


EA: The most important thing is to recognize the democratic obligation to engage with people on the other side. But this process is fraught with risk and needs facilitating conditions. Consider the fact that the geographical segregation of the sides has made this extremely difficult because it is expensive and time-consuming to travel to engage with one’s political opponents. Furthermore, social media is optimizing for values that are actively hostile to democracy. This is why we are in desperate need of other forums where people get together – and not even necessarily to talk about politics, but just about their lives. In fact, it would be even better if we had non-political activities around which we could engage. But, as things stand, we don’t even go to the same churches (if we go to church at all). Everything has been sorted and segregated so that people of different political parties have no opportunities to engage one another.

Everything has been sorted and segregated so that people of different political parties have no opportunities to engage one another.


AP: One of the things that struck me in one of your lectures was your idea that philosophy is a terrible model for public discourse! Philosophy is combative, it looks to decisively refute the other side. Philosophy doesn’t care about where people are coming from, it doesn’t care much about lived experience. So, if this type of debate is terrible for our politics, is it also terrible for our philosophy?


EA: I do think that there is way too much philosophical argumentation that’s just oriented toward refutation and one-upmanship. But I’m not going to condemn philosophy. I am a philosopher, after all! And there are many ways to do philosophy. Somebody who offers a really beautiful example of doing engaged political philosophy is Susan Neiman in her 2019 book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. She is writing as a white Jewish woman who grew up in the American South, and who has been living in Germany now for a number of years. She was struck by how the Germans had come to terms with the evil of the Holocaust, morally speaking, and encoded it in their historical memory in a way that white Americans (and America generally at the political level) have never managed in relation to slavery and its contemporary legacies of systematic racism. There has been no moral accountability, no apologies, no reparations. Much of the toxicity of politics today is a product of the refusal to come to terms with this.

Neiman does not just offer abstract arguments. She is out there talking to people – to Germans and to people in the American South – who are trying to move to a better way of being. As a philosopher, Neiman is making arguments in the course of her reporting. But these arguments are all embedded in the lived experience of coming to terms with the legacies of gross injustice in one’s own society. It is thus rooted in a way that purely abstract argument over principles is not. It is a beautiful piece of philosophy. In standard analytic philosophy, we are used to formulating isolated premises, and then looking at objections and replies to our narrowly constructed premises that we can express in a single sentence. But moral life is too messy to encapsulate in a single moral principle.


Further resources:

Elizabeth Anderson, “Can we talk?” Neubauer Collegium, 11 November 2019. .

John Dewey, “Creative democracy: the task before us” [1939]. Short essay readily and freely available online.

Robert Talisse, “America’s real polarization problem”. The Philosopher and the News podcast, 4 February 2022.


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