A Short Piece
Why Calls for Unity Don’t Work
Until we achieve “substantive democracy,” replace “tolerance” with “humility,” accept possible vulnerability to moral monsters, and accept the impossibility of certainty, calls for unity will likely feel scripted.
Who doesn’t want to be unified? Does anyone out there like division? Not many? Then why does the country seem so divided? Why do so many people feel like “calls for unity” are just propaganda?
Imagine that Darth Vader said to the Rebels “It’s time for unity” — do you think “unity” would be taken as anything else than “join us or else?” It would also entail a moral threat, for failing to unify with the Empire would be to contribute to division. And people don’t tend to respond well to moral threats…
Please do not mistake me as saying that Joe Biden is Darth Vader; for example, I’m saying that this is how Trump supporters can interpret Joe Biden. My point is simply to stress why “calls for unity” are not enough (and don’t even get me started on how we’re so poisoned by irony and cynicism that we don’t even believe in the genuine possibility of unity…).
Should we unify with fascists? What about people who stole an election? What about racists? What about Maoists? I could go on. You see, unless we change the entire hermeneutical framework by which people understand one another, unity will never happen. It’s like we don’t want to do the hard work required to make unity possible, and consequently end up with “cheap unity” (to allude to Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace”). But who wants “costly unity?” Sounds rough, not very unified.
What’s the price for “costly unity?” Well, to start, everyone should read everything by James Hunter, especially Before the Shooting Begins. In that text, he discusses the critical need for “substantive democracy,” which is discussed extensively in both “The Conflict of Mind” and “Belonging Again.” Generally, a “substance democracy” is one not so much focused on changing people’s “first principles,” but rather one that seeks a “middle ground” which all groups can agree to without betraying their most deeply held beliefs. To quote Hunter at length:
‘Let me be clear here; the common ground to which I refer is not ‘dialogue’ in the vacuous sense often invoked by some ministers, marriage counselors, and conflict-resolution specialists. It is, rather, robust and passionate and utterly serious civil reflection and argument. In this sense, it builds upon an agreement about how we should contend over our moral and political differences — a public agreement over how to disagree publicly. As George Weigel has put it, when an agreement is realized at this plane, genuine disagreement becomes an accomplishment, and authentic debate becomes a virtue. Only in this context can there exist the possibility of forging politically sustainable solutions to the conflicts that divide us.’¹
Hunter goes into great detail on what he means, but basically without “substantive democracy,” any “unity” (we try) to create will feel cheap. But even if we succeed at achieving “substantive democracy” (an incredibly tall order), there are still numerous obstacles we must overcome. To really be unified, we must:
1. Risk working with moral monsters, which our value of justice and/or righteousness will fight us tooth and claw to keep us from doing. (To take risks means we have to pay the price of existential anxiety.) In other words, we want unity today with our friends, but not with our enemies, and who needs unity with friends? That’s already taken care of and requires no risk.
2. In line with “You Couldn’t Have Been Listening if You Don’t Think Like Me,” we have to stop defining “unity” as “everyone thinking the same way.” Right now, we practically assume someone is against unity if they aren’t in favor of our views, for if they wanted to unify with us, wouldn’t they think like us? (Lurking in the background of this mistake is “the dream of autonomous reasoning,” I fear, as well as a conflation of “rational” and “right.”)
3. Risk the people we unify with using that unity as an opportunity to push forward their agenda (which is especially disturbing when the State is so large and powerful — I don’t think it’s by chance that the palatability of unity has dissolved with State growth).
4. Risk failing to correct errors.
And so on. Until we start believing that people can be unified and listen to us without sharing our beliefs (obvious errors that most of us think we don’t make), then calls for unity will prove meaningless, as praises of democracy will be empty until democracy becomes “substantive.”
But there’s still one more step, for unity will also not happen if we only feel like we “tolerate” one another. The Long Truce by A. J. Conyers is invaluable on this subject, but to borrow a single idea, the problem today is that “tolerance” has morphed from “tolerance of disagreement” to “tolerance as acceptance,” which means that we don’t feel tolerated unless people agree with us. This is a problem, for then the very idea of “tolerating one another” has been perverted into something like “cheap tolerance,” which will fall short of helping us unify. And of course, if tolerance erases the differences between us, there’s nothing that needs to be unified: there’s only “sameness.”
What we need is humility.
As discussed in “Belonging Again,” Conyers believes we don’t so much need mutual toleration of one another as much as we need a collective humility before the true, good, and beautiful, and that this state of humility necessarily makes us “open” to “the other.”
If we tolerate each other, we won’t necessarily believe there is something we can learn from one another or that we can benefit from being together — people will just be what we suffer. But if we’re humble, then we recognize that we don’t have all the answers, that maybe the people we disagree with aren’t evil, that maybe we shouldn’t be so scared all the time…
Critically, there is also no guarantee that people who tolerate one another won’t still feel certain that they are correct, and if certainty is a source of totalitarianism and existential anxiety, then our troubles will only persist and worsen. Humility, however, entails a kind of tolerance, but avoids the pitfall of certainty in favor of confidence. This is everything: where certainty is avoided, fundamentalism can be stopped and “substantive democracy” made possible. And under these conditions, unity can feel real.
In conclusion, the road to unity is paved with humility. But what if humility ends up preserving injustice or threatens what the Founding Fathers intended?
¹Hunter, James Davison. Before the Shooting Begins. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994: 35.