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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Places You Can't Go

by Micah Tillman

1. Silly People

You can't call for an end to polarization with a straight face. Or if you can, there's something wrong with you.

The very act of condemning polarization is polarizing.

To attack polarization is

  • to condemn polarizers
  • to draw a distinction between yourself and them
  • to set you and yours against them and theirs.

But you can't call for unity with a straight face either. The very act is divisive.

To praise unity is

  • to condemn dividers
  • to draw a distinction between yourself and them
  • to set you and yours against them and theirs.

A bumper sticker I saw once that said, "There is no 'Them.' There's only 'Us.'"

"So take that, all you people who think otherwise."

There are some places you simply cannot go rhetorically, not because they are self-contradictory, but because they are self-contrapractory.

If that's even a word.

Wait, they already have one for acting against what you say (and vice versa). It starts with rhymes with "democracy" and starts with "hyp."

So let's have no more of this "America is too polarized!" and "We need to unify!" stuff. Politics is no place for silliness.

2. Alternative Silliness

The alternative, however, isn't to call for difference and division. I was reminded of this recently when rereading Locke's Second Treatise.

If you take everyone for who she is in himself (a little gender-inclusive language there) -- as an individual -- you find out everyone's the same.

Our individuality proves our non-difference. So says Locke in Chapter II.

But this is not the individualism you normally hear about. . . . And it's more consistent than the individualisms which demand universal difference.

The call for everyone to be unique is contrapractory. If everyone's different, then everyone's the same.

Not only that, everyone becomes determined by everyone else. And the more people there are, the more people you must be different from.

3. Still Trying

Uncomfortable with the attempts to found our dignity (our mutual freedom-from-each-other) on our being identical, and realizing the hypocrisy of calling for universal difference, Levinas and Derrida turned to a different kind of difference.

We are free from each other because we simply always already are different, both from each other and from any categorization. To be human is to be "other than" whatever label is placed on you.

Such a self-defense, such a foundation of human dignity, is only possible, of course, as an infinitely repeated negation.

  • "No, I am not what you say I am."
  • "And not that either."
  • "Wrong again."

And it goes in both directions.

  • "No, you are not what I think."
  • "I cannot comprehend you."
  • "You are not within my grasp."

4. Fulfillment?

You can never reach the end of this process. Which is as it should be.

If you could "go there," you could finally seize the ground on which "the Other" stands. And then the Other would not be Other.

There is no demand that we be different for Levinas and Derrida. There is simply the assertion that we are, and should recognize this fact. (A fact which never is what you think it is. So don't even try to pull a "gotcha" on these guys.)

Here we have the striving for ideals embodied in a self-aware, playful self-contra-dicting.

Whether it actually fulfills the dream of human dignity -- which seems to motivate the opposition to polarization, the extolling of unity, the celebration of identity, and the demands of difference -- is something I can't answer.

But I have another question: How does Obama propose he be fulfilled?

5. Fulfillment!

Obama recently identified himself as a "symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions." But symbols are empty. They direct us to what they symbolize, and therefore lack what they symbolize.

The process of bringing a symbol into the presence of what is symbolizes (so that it ceases to simply raise our hopes) is what Husserl -- the intellectual father of Levinas and Derrida -- called "fulfillment."

Every symbol demands fulfillment, but every type of symbolized object requires a different process.

  • To fulfill the expression-symbol, "Obama throws a good rally," you have to attend one.
  • To fulfill the equation-symbol, "2 + x = 4," you have to solve for x.

How do we fulfill an Obama-symbol?

6. Presence or Silliness?

How do we bring an Obama into the presence of that which he symbolizes so as to fill up ("fulfill") his inherent difference -- as a symbol -- from what he symbolizes?

No symbol fulfills itself, after all. You do not suddenly enter the presence of George W by saying, "George W is [insert adjective of your choice]."

You do not suddenly have peace by flashing the peace sign or by drawing the (other) peace sign.

Signs remain empty until you undertake the activities required to bring their objects to presence.

So, given an Obama-symbol, how do we "go there"? How do we reach our "best traditions" so that he can be fulfilled?

Or can we go there at all? Might it be that he is a symbol like "1 + Green = x" or "The tree is not a tree"?

Micah Tillman ( is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

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Sorry about the typo in the "hypocrisy" line. . . .

It was late.

Nice coverage of the terrain (and pitfalls) of polarization.

I'd suggest that stating one's opinion is not's a fact.

Condemning another's opinion IS polarizing.

We can disagree,then, but we can do so with respect. "You are wrong" becomes "I have a different take."

# posted at by Robert Capozzi

Good point. There does seem to be a difference between self-expression and other-condemnation.

However, unless one qualifies one's opinions with (an explicit or implicit), "But I could be wrong," your opinions entail the belief that whatever is mutually-exclusive with your opinions is false.

Perhaps looking at things that way would get people to start asking which opinions really are mutually-exclusive, and which (possibly) compatible.

It might be that people we think can't possibly be right if we're right might have some hope after all.


"I am always wrong," is my assumption. Of course, that's a paradox, for if I were always wrong, I'd be wrong about being wrong.

Opinions can't be wrong, they are opinions. One either has one or one doesn't, so opinions are facts or not.

There's hope in hopelessness. As soon as we recognize that the concept of "right" is actually just an opinion, the walls of polarization come tumbling down. Now that's REAL hope, IMO, of course!

# posted at by Robert Capozzi


But surely you don't assume you're completely wrong. If you did, you wouldn't give yourself the time of day. Nor would you be arguing with me that opinions can't be wrong.

You are, after all, trying to get me to see the truth.

And opinions can be wrong. It was Hitler's opinion that Jews should be killed. That was wrong (both in the moral sense and in the alethiological sense).

It was a fact that he had the opinion. But the fact that Hitler had the opinion (i.e., "Hitler's opinion is that Jews should be killed"), and the "fact" which his opinion was about (i.e., "Jews should be killed") are two different things.

Just because the former is an actual fact does not mean the latter is. And you, of course, agree with that.

But if the latter isn't an actual fact, then the opinion is false. The existence (or nonexistence) of the fact which an opinion is about determines the truth-value of the opinion. The two are not irrelevant to each other.

Many opinions, after all, can be tested.

"Always wrong" is more of an internal attitude, a reminder of the import of humility, rarely shared. It equals "I also COULD be wrong" for general consumption.

Actually, I'm not "trying" to get you to see the truth, since we can't know exactly what the whole truth is. One gets glimpses. One shares notes.

Even Hitler's opinions are merely opinions. His were profoundly dysfunctional, to the point of needing intervention in some form. "Wrong," however, is an opinion and an attitude. Sociopaths have opinions that they act on in unacceptable ways.

And, yes, many opinions CAN be tested...for whether they are functional or dysfunctional.

# posted at by Robert Capozzi

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