Civil Disagreement: Personal Integrity in Pluralistic Society (Georgetown University Press, 2014)

[1] In an increasingly polarized society, with a dysfunctional and unpopular Congress and a culture that is racked with disagreement to the point of vitriol, Edward Langerak, Prof. Emeritus, St. Olaf College, has offered some carefully nuanced insight into the nature and history of disagreement. This book is compact and concise and yet heavy with ideas for better understanding conflict and differences. An important dimension of his focus is the ability to engage in disagreement, hold onto your personal convictions and maintain your personal integrity through it all.

[2] In only 170 pages consisting of 5 chapters, extensive footnotes, and 8 pages of bibliography, he lays the foundation for better understanding how to talk about difficult issues. Langerak does not suggest it directly, but this could be a helpful guidebook for clergy and religious educators who want to help congregations engage in serious exchange on difficult topics or, in the words of the ELCA Foundational Social Statement, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” (Sept. 1991) help congregations become “communities of moral deliberation.”

[3] Langerek starts by delving into the different historic discussions of conflict, differences, and disagreements wherein he offers glimpses of Hobbes, Rousseau, Aristotle, Thomas More’s Utopia and its possible influence on Karl Marx’s vision of a classless society. He also highlights the Amish, the Mennonites and the Shaker communities, all of whom have articulated and put into practice a vision of harmonious societies. Langerak recognizes that harmony in society is possible, but, primarily in a homogenous setting.

[4] The basic human experience today is the encounter of differences in beliefs and practices, and an anthropological perspective suggests that from very early cultures we are predisposed or ‘hardwired’ to avoid differences.

[5] Moral conflict is second nature to human existence, and Langerak says it is a good thing, that it should even be celebrated. “Moral conflict is part of the experience of anyone living an interesting life. In fact, it is so prevalent that some are tempted to identify this sort of conflict— wrestling with apparent dilemmas— with moral thinking in general.” (pg. 33)Therefore, he offers tools for thinking about the reality of moral conflict. Included in his repertoire is a series of discussions on the nature and importance of civility; the different claims that come into play, such as empirical vs. metaphysical; and the kinds and uses of arguments. The context for all of this is the different forms of pluralisms, such as religious, values pluralism, and more.

[6] Langerak devotes considerable attention to the context of various forms of pluralisms which account for conflict, differences and disagreement. The notion of Reasonable Pluralism is important here. Certain beliefs and practices are simply unacceptable such as the world is flat, or the sun orbits the earth, the extreme examples. Reasonable Pluralism recognizes that there are reasonable, well informed, well educated people with whom we simply disagree. Many of our disagreements are with beliefs that fall on the spectrum between really foolish and highly respectable. (pg. 33) It is possible to disagree strongly, to understand why the other person might hold that belief, respect their position, and also engage in civil conversation around the differences.

[7] How do we deal with conflict and differences in a helpful way that allows us to carry on conversations about difficult issues? Langerak addresses this with a discussion of the history and nature of tolerance, and the practice of toleration and respect. Toleration and respect can be used as tools, guidelines and parameters for talking about difficult issues. Langerak’s analysis is complex and difficult. To make it useful, more accessible, the next step would be to operationalize his concepts and turn them into a set of guidelines for use in congregational and community educational settings. His book is a challenging and interesting discussion of how we might maintain or sense of personal integrity when encountering disagreement in a pluralistic society. It has great potential for use in a congregational setting when someone takes the time to highlight his concepts and turn them into teaching principles and guidelines. They need to be made more accessible for the average person, for whom conflict and disagreement are part of life.

[8] It is notable that one of the major sources for Langerak’s argument is the late John Rawls and his work Political Liberalism in which he drew the distinction between ‘reasonable and rational.’ The “rational persons can be very calculating and completely self-interested.” “Reasonable persons, while rational, are also interested in fair minded cooperation and reciprocity among persons, all of whom they regard as free and equal.” (pp. 35 – 36) Rawls also articulates the concept of public reason, arguing that certain claims in the public arena are generally acceptable to one’s compatriots. Because I am reasonable, others will at least acknowledge my ideas or beliefs, even if they don’t actually accept them. This is the basis for what Rawls refers to as an overlapping consensus.

[9] Langernak engages in an extensive discussion of these concepts and it is when he enters the public square that he begins to seem a little too optimistic about the prospect of finding agreement, and resolving differences through the political and legislative process. That is a good part of his 4th chapter, “Laws and Dissenters,” where he discusses public policy, and the legislative and judicial process, the places where we finally workout and concretize our differences. In this chapter, Langerak offers proposals for compromise, draws upon John Rawls, and gives good examples of how differences and dissenters have been accommodated both domestically and globally, and he highlights different strains of liberalism, using Rawls as part of the basis for his discussion.

[10] “Laws and Dissenters” is fairly thorough and detailed discussion. Citing Rawls repeatedly is helpful and interesting. (John Rawls was recently identified by “The New Republic” magazine as one of the top 5 most influential philosophers of the past 100 years, his specialties being justice and liberalism.) The work by Rawls, Political Liberalism, was first published in 1993 with a new edition in 1996, in a time when there was a stronger notion of pubic reason at work and more evidence of overlapping consensus. Another term for what Rawls is expressing is ‘compromise’ which reflects the qualities of cooperation and reciprocity that Rawls, through Langernak attributes to reasonable persons. The questions raised in Civil Disagreement concerns the application of the teachings of Rawls to the immediate political and cultural circumstances.

[11] There have been dramatic changes at work in the American political culture in the last decade that contradicts the sense of optimism or hopefulness expressed by Langernak in this detailed discussion of Civil Disagreement. To name a few, including the ones cited in the opening of this review, our culture and political process is currently highly polarized; political gerrymandering has made it increasingly difficult to elect moderates or more reasonable persons, to state and federal legislative bodies; a widespread, organized effort at US voter suppression is destructive of the electoral process; the Citizens United Supreme Court decision has opened the floodgates to unaccountable money flowing into the political process; the growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, and thus power and influence, in the American and global economy make it increasingly difficult to find common interests and common ground between the elites and the masses, thus exacerbating disagreement. Not only do we know it inherently that Congress is growing increasingly dysfunctional, it has been thoroughly documented by the conservative and liberal Congress watchers respectively, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, in their 2012 publication It’s Even Worse than It Looks.

[12] The real strength of Langernak’s work is his recognition that ‘Civil Disagreement’ can be very, very difficult. He does acknowledge that forthrightly by noting near the conclusion that “the viewpoint underlying this book is that, in a society with interesting diversities, questions and disagreements are more likely than agreement on answers. The issue is whether we can share our disagreements in a civil way, one that recognizes the importance of personal integrity while also insisting on respecting our differences.” (pg. 143) He is clear that we can engage and celebrate differences and disagreement, and also hold onto our personal convictions. He has laid the foundations for exercising civility, respect and personal integrity in our differences and disagreements in his ‘teachings and instructions’ that are historically grounded, and that draw on some of the best resources for thinking about this, including Plato, John Rawls, Alasdair MacIntyre and many others.

[13] The final question regarding Civil Disagreement: Personal Integrity in a Pluralistic Society concerns whether or not we can make this work more accessible and available to our congregations so that they might become better equipped to talk about difficult issues, and celebrate differences and disagreement in a respectful way. That may be the next challenge for this work by Langerak.

Ward Cornett III

Rev. Ward Cornett III, an ELCA Pastor, is Retired Director of Continuing Education and Life Long Learning, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and Ohio Coordinator, Churches for Middle East Peace