Finding Common Ground in a Pluralistic America | Opinion

My neighbors in leafy Cambridge, Mass., have in the past few years begun planting creeds in their gardens. You maybe have seen them—corrugated plastic signs that begin "We Believe" (or Credo, if you prefer the Latin) and continue with a multi-colored liberal litany: "Water is Life," "Science is Real," "Black Lives Matter," "Feminism is for everyone," etc., etc.

This planting is not the action of a strong, confident consensus. It is the action of a nervous, beleaguered sect, whose members feel their certainty draining away and want desperately to find validation in the agreement of their neighbors. This kind of brittleness is endemic on every side of American life in 2021. No faction is exempt. Coping with deep-seated ideological pluralism has never been an easy task; moving it from local communities to a disembodied digital sphere brings us a new, confoundingly difficult problem.

A worldview—a comprehensive, coherent sense of reality, one's place in it, what is important, what is to be done—is among humanity's most glorious and fragile artifacts, one that makes our other artifacts possible. Without it there is no richness of community, very little cooperative action, no culture, no cities, no art or advanced technology—in short, no humanity. It is an artifact in the full sense of the word; it is something we must make together. Every child is born with the capacity for one, but only develops it in close proximity with attentive caregivers. Through a mysterious mechanism of mirroring, a child grows attuned to her caregiver's view of the people and things around her. She absorbs it as if through osmosis, and walks with increasing confidence, able to incorporate more and more things into her coherent sense of life.

But worldviews are fragile. Trauma can cause them to fray, as can isolation and loneliness. A prisoner in solitary confinement can lose the ability to tell the difference between self and world, to hold constant a coherent sense of what is real and what is imaginary. A merely lonely person, in ordinary life, often loses the ability to focus attention, or to regulate emotions and behaviors. The Greek philosopher Aristotle would say that this is because we are zoon politikon, political animals, made for life in dense, complex interpersonal networks, and unlikely to thrive outside of them. Modern neuroscience would point out that the baseline for brain function is a condition of embeddedness in a network of co-cognizers and co-actors, and that without these, our cognitive load spikes, we become stressed and a myriad of terrible knock-on effects like increased mortality ensue.

Note well, however, that we need more than mere proximity to human bodies. Our default state is to be in cooperative community with other people who share our basic view of reality—what is true, important and good within it—and thus can help to firm up our own view, to keep it steady, elastic, responsive to new phenomena and challenges. If isolation is a problem, then, so is disagreement about fundamental matters. This makes the kind of pluralism that we have in America these days a real problem.

Campaign lawn signs
Voting signs line up the lawns on January 5, 2021 in Atlanta during the Georgia Senate runoff elections. - After an unprecedented campaign that mobilized President Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden, the people of Georgia started voting Tuesday in two US Senate runoffs that could shape the first years of the new Democratic presidency. For nearly 20 years Georgia has voted reliably Republican in the presidential election and Senate contests. VIRGINIE KIPPELEN/AFP/Getty Images

Pluralism is not new, of course. Humans have often found themselves sat cheek to jowl with people and groups who do not share their basic orientation. But the cheeks and jowls are important in the equation. If I watch you and your community live out your (to me, heretical) faith day to day, I see with my own eyes how contingent it is—how it is based on inherited traditions, how it responds to particular needs of your community, how it adapts itself to changing circumstances, how it is held with varying degrees of confidence and orthodoxy by various members of the community. I also see how much the heretics and I actually have in common. This kind of competitor worldview is still troubling, perhaps, but less overtly threatening to my own view of reality.

But what if we are suddenly immersed in a pool of disparate worldviews presented only in their most confident, bellicose and creedal formulations? What if, in other words, we find them on the internet? In that setting, my worldview starts to feel very brittle. I feel the need to assert my own creed with increasing ferocity and blunt certainty, which scares the hell out of those who disagree with me, leading to an arms race of creedal assertion. We get social media flame wars, increasing polarization and plummeting levels of trust.

What are we to do?

My proposal is unconditional disarmament, enacted by all people of good will, especially those of us who think, speak and write in public. When Fyodor Dostoevsky set out to argue the truth of the Christian faith in his masterwork The Brothers Karamazov, he began by presenting, in the mouth of Ivan Karamazov, the most devastating argument ever presented against the Christian God. By focusing on the horrifying suffering of children here in God's supposedly good world, Dostoevsky exposed the fragility of his faith, and the deep, profound, humane reasons one might have to reject Dostoevsky's God. He then went on to present his reasons for still believing. The upfront fragilizing of the faith makes The Brothers Karamazov one of the greatest defenses of Christianity ever composed.

The progressive liberal worldview of my Cambridge neighbors is, like all worldviews, fragile. It might be wrong, and it probably is wrong in some aspects. And each of its adherents knows it. No one that I've ever spoken to looks out on a reality that is as clear and tidy as the garden creeds suggest. So they, and all of us, should put down the rhetorical armor. They, and all of us, should openly fragilize our worldviews. We should present the many deep, profound, humane reasons one might have to disagree with us, and then give our reasons for still believing. There's no way for digitally mediated pluralism to work otherwise. Down the path of garden signs lies increasing enmity, born from fear and anomie. We can't sustain much more of it and remain a single nation in any substantial sense.

For all of us, holding a world intact is a deep and constant labor. None of us knows absolutely for certain that we are doing it right. But all of us share the need to keep building in the face of uncertainty. There's common ground there—not the warm belonging of full creedal agreement, perhaps, but a place, even a welcoming place, where we can stand together.

Ian Marcus Corbin is a Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.