Democratic Tension

Democratic encounters are laden with tension. They expose us to disagreements rooted in different experiences and orientations. Yet, to seek consensus (typically defined as general agreement, shared judgment, or solidarity of sentiment and opinion) as an escape from tension is an act of exclusion that diminishes the democratic self.

Democracy without the tension of dissent is anemic and unsustainable. To stay healthy, a democratic society must engage differing opinions. Yes, it is difficult to listen to those with whom we disagree, and we should try harder, but the burden of being heard falls mostly on those who speak from a minority perspective. That’s just how political power operates. It is not self-checking.

The dissonant voice of otherness disturbs the prevailing order. It creates tension. It challenges the limits of the collective self. It disturbs habits of thought. It disrupts the geography of the mind.

Diversity, in Oscar Giner’s account of Horton Foote meeting Charles Gordone, was accommodated by acknowledging differences in order to see similarities and by accepting those similarities in order to know the differences. Similarities and differences can complement one another, which is an often-overlooked principle of democratic persuasion that speaks to our interdependence, to assembling the pieces of the human puzzle, to making one another more complete rather than reverting to the rituals of incompatibility.

Critics of the war on terrorism are reviled or ignored when we assume falsely that criticism of US necessarily means allegiance to THEM. That’s either/or thinking. It renders debate taboo.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an American Muslim, believes that the U.S., operating in the spirit of partnership, can assist Muslim countries to overcome poverty, establish the rule of law, and gradually evolve toward self-governance. American Muslims can act as mediators “to help repair the damage that has been done to Muslim-American relations over the last fifty years” [What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West (2004), pp. 254-55]. The U.S. cannot make peace by force of arms or without the assistance of Islam.

Similarly, David Cortright argues, in his capacity as a director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, that the best way to counter terrorism is by political struggle (instead of by warfare) to address the concerns of ordinary Muslims worldwide. Cooperation among allies and adversaries allows for “a more comprehensive and holistic strategy that balances security concerns with the defense of human rights and prioritizes economic development, good governance programs, conflict transformation, and support for the rule of law” [“Winning Without War: Nonmilitary Strategies for Overcoming Violent Extremism,” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems 21:197 (Spring 2012): 215].

Complementary relationships acknowledge differences and accept similarities. Interdependence balances disagreement. Identification compensates for—is the counterpart of—division [Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), pp. 22-23] in the factional world of democracy. It enables dissent and deliberation.



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