The Uneven Ground of Our Discussions

Just as we can struggle to converge on shared purpose in our disagreements, so too can we struggle to accurately perceive each other—both who we are and what we are saying.

Indeed, many of our failures to achieve stasis are influenced by our failure to understand how different people understand the same issue differently due to their unique perspectives.

Market stall offering varieties of tea.
Photo by Arthur Brognoli on

At first glance, such difference can be hard to perceive. In the US cultural context, the idea of an even playing field holds great appeal. Supposedly, we are all welcome to bring our ideological wares to the marketplace of ideas and sell them on their merits.

But not everything is what it seems to be as will be discussed in more detail in the next section.

The value and meaning we assign to a viewpoint is inevitably influenced by who speaks the viewpoint, who hears it, and the context in which we relate to each other.

A well-known example is King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in which he defends civil rights activism against criticism that their actions are indecorous and untimely (invoking the rhetorical concept of kairos).

Today, we may think we know better than King’s critics—that we would easily heed calls for justice—but we do not. What seems just and right to one person can appear wrong to another, just as in King’s time sit-ins and boycotts against segregation were deemed unseemly by those used to segregation as a social norm.

Why do we have such contradictory perceptions? One set of social relations can seem to be the natural order, yet those relations emerged historically along lines of power that privileged some at the expense of others.

When some speak up about injustice, such as the rule of monarchy over democratic self-determination to draw on a historical American example, others see them as seeking to upend what is right and natural.

Even those advocating against one dimension of injustice can fail perceive its operation among others.

The prominent single-issue reform movements of the past—abolition, suffrage—have evolved into an approach that calls us to attend the complex realities in which we find ourselves.

Hills with pine trees with mountains in cloudy distance.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality recognizes that an individual can simultaneously occupy a variety of identities—each one holding a relative place of power within society.

The Combahee River Collective Statement, for example, considers how those affected by the injustices of sexism can be unmindful of and contribute to the continued injustices of racism.

An intersectional approach shows that far from a level playing field, we navigate over uneven terrain when we choose to move toward common ground and a better life for all.

It is only through engaging difference through productive disagreement that we have any chance of a better world. Yet great challenges stand in the way of that productive disagreement.

Better Disagreements → Many Purposes → Uneven Ground → What Seems to Be