When I examine the state of politics in the Anglo-Saxon world (which is rather dismal, it must be candidly admitted), I am reminded of the fatal lure of dialectic, by which the behavior of one particular side in a given dispute prompts a response by the other side leading to tit-for-tat increases in hostility that tend to ratchet up conflict and disagreement and make it impossible for people to step back from their mutual hostility without losing face. As a student of the history of the 19th century, the most obvious example of this tendency is the American Civil War, but that is far from the only case where the process of dialectic ultimately led to immensely destructive conflict. To a lesser extent this was also the problem in the hostility between the United States and Great Britain that led to the War of 1812, less destructive than the Civil War but still immensely destructive (both York and Washington DC were destroyed in the course of that war, all for a conflict that ended with a status quo antebellum thanks to the skill of America’s diplomats and a postwar military victory by Jackson in New Orleans).
What does a dialectic look like when one is dealing with partisan political hostility? Let us briefly examine the sort of dialectic that was present between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces spanning from the American Revolution. This will of necessity be a very condensed account. At the beginning of the American Revolution slavery was present in the entire United States, although the rhetoric of liberty led to actions which increasingly made slavery illegitimate in the Northern states, whether through constitutional prohibitions on slavery (Pennsylvania), Supreme Court decisions (Massachusetts), or gradual emancipation efforts (New York, New Jersey). By the time that the slave trade had been made illegal, there was a clear divide between slave and free states, which became increasingly problematic after the divide over Missouri’s entry into the union, which led to attempts to balance slave and free states to preserve sectional equality. A growing belief in the 1830’s that slavery was a positive good and a rise in free soil sentiment led to squabbles over the gag rule that sought to keep antislavery petitions from being read in Congress and that delayed the entrance of Texas into the Union. Once California entered into the Union as a free state sectional equality was ended and proslavery forces sought to either force entry into previously antislavery areas (Kansas and Nebraska) or to purchase territory that would be new slave territories (Cuba), but were largely unsuccessful given the greater population and political power of the North. Attempting to legislate in favor of the slave states by the Supreme Court only decreased the legitimacy of that institution and encouraged the rise of the Republican party, whose success in 1860 led Southerners to rebel before losing the demographic battle for good.
How is this a dialectic? For one, we have two sides in disagreement, proslavery and antislavery tendencies and supporters. For another, we have a situation where the influence and position of one versus the other is viewed in zero sum fashion. For another, the rise of one particular side leads to actions by the other to counteract this rise. For example, the rise of antislavery petitions and political activity lead to increasing censorship in the South to protect their culture from antislavery material, and the use of the Supreme court to attempt to allow for the spread of slavery to all territories led to increased support for a political party that refused to countenance the spread of slavery to any territories whatsoever. This is a clear dialectic, with the thesis as liberty (a thesis supported, it must be admitted, by Virginia slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson who framed their desire for American political freedom in universal terms that could very easily be extrapolated to other groups) and the antithesis as slavery. And it is true that freedom and slavery were (and are) directly antithetical, and that any gains for one are declines by others. The fatal contradiction within the southern aristocracy was a fervent belief in their own political freedom and in their own fitness to rule over not only their own states but America as a whole and their resolute refusal to countenance the freedom of other people to reject their leadership and to seek liberty for themselves out from under the rule of such aristocrats. Ultimately the support of freedom for me but not for thee was not viewed as an acceptable standard, however much people felt ambivalently about the proper place for women, blacks, or other groups of people.
Why is a resolute focus on dialectic fatal for a free society? A focus on dialectic leads people to examine double standards and contradictions that are inherent in many worldviews. The exposure and open discussion of these contradictions leads people to lose face, which tends to lead them to lash out in turn and seek contradictions in the worldview of their rivals and opponents, which tends to lead to a decline in civility all around. This absence of civility tends to separate people into circles where friendly social intercourse takes place between like-minded people, where within-group discourse is far more common than between-group discourse that would lower social tensions as a whole. This was a tendency increasingly seen in the 19th century as the Civil War approached, as rhetorical and physical violence was increasingly common between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates and where there was increasingly little common ground where issues of importance to both sides could be dealt with through mediation and compromise. Any institution that sought to legislate a solution then found its own legitimacy threatened once it showed bias. These are all tendencies we can see in our contemporary society, and if it does not promise civil war, it certainly makes that kind of endemic hostility that threatened the survival of regimes like the French Third Republic a real possibility.
There appears to be no easy solution to this. Genuine dialogue requires a genuine respect of where someone is coming from and what someone believes, and a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to someone’s goodness of intentions, however much one may disagree with what someone proposes. Unfortunately, ages of increased dialectical tendencies tend to find that hostility reinforced by competing conspiratorial or apocalyptic tendencies that reinforce the natural human tendency to see oneself as being a beleaguered and threatened force for righteousness and see one’s rivals and opponents as being inspired by forces of cosmic evil and of being therefore less than human and unworthy of respect and concern. And, all too lamentable, even where the view that others may be falling prey to great evil is correct, the corresponding belief that we ourselves are motivated by good and the conflation of our own perspective with that of God or history leads us to justify any evil that we may commit as being entirely proper when one is dealing with those who are evil. After all, one does not mourn the slaughter of cockroaches or vipers and cobras, as one may easily see such beings as being enemies to humanity in general. Of course, when two sides view themselves as defenders of humanity and its well-being and opponents as being enemies of humanity of no more concern than roaches and other vile creatures, one cannot expect a great deal of fondness between such divided camps. And yet that is the sort of problem we find repeatedly within our world. To resolve this problem requires that we restrain ourselves from viewing ourselves as being all good, and recognize that others, no matter how much their views or perspectives may bother and offend us, are a mixture of good and evil just as we are. Such a nuanced and balanced perspective is hard to maintain in the face of continual offense and provocation. It is better to prevent this sort of dialectic from being created in the first place, but alas, we are not wise and it is frequently too late for us to prevent hostility and resentment from being created in the first place.