Online Conversation | Hope Beyond Political Tribalism
On Friday, June 5, 2020 The Trinity Forum welcomed Dr. James Mumford, British author and journalist. In this conversation Mumford shares insights from his latest book, Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribalism
The painting is Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, 1807
The song is ‘O Day of Peace’ by Josh Garrels
Transcript of “Hope Beyond Political Tribalism” with James Mumford
Cherie Harder: These have been hard times, and this has been a particularly rough week. In less than three months, we’ve experienced a global pandemic which has isolated and separated us. That’s triggered a worldwide economic recession which has strained and depleted us. And now, after the horrific on-camera killing of George Floyd, we’ve had a week of protest, anger, and unrest which has further inflamed and unsettled us all. In the midst of such strong centrifugal forces pulling us apart, it seemed fitting to give thought to how polarization and tribalism gain strength, how it affects us, and how we can more clearly, creatively, charitably, and faithfully think and engage in the midst of it all. And ultimately, we hope to consider the question, What is our hope beyond political tribalism? We’re delighted to welcome as our guest today Dr. James Mumford, who literally wrote a book on the topic. James is a British author, scholar, and journalist who writes on a wide range of topics, including ethics, politics, sociology, and literature, for a variety of publications on both sides of the Atlantic—including The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, The Atlantic, The Daily Telegraph, The American Conservative, The Hedgehog Review, and much more. He previously taught philosophy and ethics at the University of Virginia, where he remains a fellow at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture, and is also a visiting fellow in the MacDonald Center at Oxford. He is the author of the book “Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes,” which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. James, welcome.
James Mumford: Hi, great to see you Cherie.
Cherie Harder: James, what drew you to the study of the ethics of tribalism? Were you ever tempted to join your brothers’ band instead, or was the allure of ethics just too great?
James Mumford: The allure was just too great, I’m afraid. Music and the showbiz life was not for me. I love America, and I’ve lived in the States for a number of different periods, in intervals. This last time, I was in the University of Virginia. I was teaching philosophy there and writing, and I was really overwhelmed by the extent of political polarization that I saw. I saw families that were divided between Republicans and Democrats. I saw faculties which had ostracized professors who were on the other side of the political aisle. I saw churches that had lost their way because they were so divided. I went to dinner parties where no one on the other end of the political spectrum had been invited, so there wasn’t even any discussion. In seeing all that, the thing that started to intrigue me was the way that a whole host of positions on moral issues had been bundled up into what I call “package deals,” which we then have to choose between. For example, I might be on the left and I might be an environmentalist and I might care very deeply about affirmative action. By virtue of holding those positions, I might inherit a view that it would be wise to legalize assisted suicide, for example. Or, to give an example on the right, I might care very deeply about family values, and I might think that it’s right to be tough on crime. And I thereby inherit, because I hold those other two views, a view that we should resist gun control. I was intrigued by the inconsistencies, and I wanted to write about those, which is what I’ve done in this book.
Cherie Harder: What leads us to accept these unusual ideological package deals? It does seem that there are some oddball combinations, [including] the ones you describe in the book. Just looking around, you can tell that if you know how someone voted on, say, immigration, you can likely predict how much promise they think hydroxychloroquine has. An unusual combination. Why do we link issues as diverse as hydroxychloroquine and immigration, or gun control and abortion, or environmentalism and assisted suicide?
James Mumford: I think the reason is because in each case, these issues have been tacked onto other ones because of the results of coalition-building by politicians [who are] pandering to different interests, trying to gather different interest groups. And I get that—that’s what politicians have to do and are in the business of doing. But in the end, it makes for some unlikely bedfellows. It leaves us in a situation where we have huge tensions and dissonance in the sorts of positions that we’re supposed to hold because we’re on one side of the political spectrum or the other. For example, as many people know, President Nixon employed a strategy of trying to win over the Catholic vote because of the historic pro-life disposition of New Deal Democrats who were Catholics. They were moved en bloc because of President Nixon’s coalition building. So that would be just one example of how one issue moved a group of people to hold a particular package deal.
Cherie Harder: Throughout your book, you discuss the potential harms of this fairly incoherent clustering of issues that you talk about. You hold up as an idea “the quest to be independent-minded, to free our moral deliberation from the hold of political categories, which improves our chance of getting it right and of living in truth.” But in many ways, our categories themselves often form our outlook, and our categories can actually help form the lens through which we see the world. Seeing beyond those categories can itself sometimes require moral re-formation. How does one begin to see clearly and judge their categories with fresh eyes?
James Mumford: That’s a great question. I think it’s at the core of what it means to be human to be able to step back: to step back from our desires, to hold them up to the light and to work out if we want to identify with those and pursue those; but also to step back from our beliefs and our core convictions and hold them up to the light. That process of stepping back is where I think we begin moving beyond political tribalism. I think that what’s also very important is this notion that I write about in the book of moral imagination. That means that with each of these different ethical issues—whether it be assisted suicide, the wages of the working poor, or environmental catastrophe—we begin by morally imagining (which is another term for empathy), by holding in view groups that are impacted by our decisions and thinking. I think putting them first and foremost sometimes starts to shift our relation and our attitude towards various ethical questions which relate to those groups. So I think it’s about moral imagination. It’s about stepping back. And finally, it’s about exposing ourselves to a range of different views and to people (and their thinking) that we might not reflexively warm towards.
Cherie Harder: Just to go a bit deeper with that: it’s generally quite easy to spot the blind spots and inconsistencies of those we disagree with. It’s a lot harder to do that with ourselves, or with others that we like and agree with and already confirm our biases. Another way that our blind spots often get sanded off is through the grittiness of living with people and spending time with people, [which leads to] the inevitable sanding off of our rough spots. But in the aggregate, we are an increasingly lonely and alienated people. Far more people are living alone, and we are also increasingly sorted by our political and ideological views—such that we only hang out (to the extent that we do) with people we agree with, and even our information streams are stratified. What habits or practices do you recommend to apprehend reality more clearly?
James Mumford: I think that one of the things that changed me in writing this book was trying not to pigeonhole people based on certain things that are said by them, and not thinking that because they think this they must be that kind of person or they must always have this kind of view about everything. I’ve really tried to challenge myself not to pigeonhole people, but to listen more carefully to the kinds of reasoning and concerns that are behind questions. I think that process humbled me. I also think it’s really important to let the alliances fall where the alliances fall. What I mean by that is that it’s crucial to realize that there are issues that we can work together on with groups whose other political views we might be put off by. It’s that sort of bipartisanship that we’ve seen in the past, and that we’ve lost in the present, that I think is key to how we move beyond and start to see more clearly.
Cherie Harder: Previous guests that we’ve had on our Online Conversations have talked about liturgy: repeated embodied practice and how it forms our mind, our thinking, our loves. I’m curious if the process of doing the research and writing this book led you to different practices or habits that you tried to inculcate personally to enable you to think more creatively, coherently, and charitably towards others.
James Mumford: Well, I’m not sure that changing your daily browser of which new sites you look at counts as liturgy. But that’s definitely one thing that I did: I tried to ensure that I wasn’t just reading The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, but I was reading both. I was getting a range of different views from ten or twelve different sites a day, so that I was being exposed to both the stories that were selected [by each] and the vantage points on those stories that were covered by both. That was just a little thing that I did, but I think it’s made a big difference to my news diet.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned a browser, and of course, [there is a] way that not only social media algorithms but even the medium itself encourages us to think. It positively reinforces and rewards speed, snark, spectacle, shaming—all of which is fairly antithetical to the kind of thinking that you’re talking about. Is the kind of project you describe compatible with social media as we currently use it?
James Mumford: I think no, in many ways. For the reasons you just said, the kind of reflection and stepping back that I’m talking about in “Vexed” is countercultural. Listening to people face-to-face is tragically not as much of a possibility right now, obviously—but the sort of relational engagement that I’m talking about is very different from the combative exchange that we see on social media. And so it is a countercultural project to disengage, to question our own assumptions, and then also to engage with other people about their own assumptions and their own convictions and how those fit together. I think it is a countercultural practice.
Cherie Harder: A lot of what we’ve talked [about] so far has been fairly intellectual and heady. But there is a lot of evidence to suggest that we pick our tribes in the first place not because we have been led there by the unquestionable march of logic and been convinced, but rather [because] something about it appeals to us, and so we’re drawn to it almost on a precognitive level and then supply intellectual justifications later. If we pick our tribe at least partially in precognitive ways, how likely is it that we’re going to reason ourselves into challenging our tribe or its beliefs?
James Mumford: That’s so true, isn’t it? It’s the argument powerfully made by Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind.” I really feel the pull of tribalism myself. I started writing this book in the States, having seen such political tribalism [there]. When I came back to the U.K., I thought it might be a relief to have some respite from everything that I had experienced with the election of President Trump in 2016. I came back and there had been this referendum to leave the EU, and we saw exactly the same kind of personal, bitter tribalism here. My experience of it was [that] I was quite on the fence, because I had missed the debate. I didn’t have hugely strong views on this crucial issue. I could see the arguments on both sides. But what I found is that when I was with my friends who were remainers, I would murmur approval and I would say, “Isn’t it awful, this right wing insurgency?” I would agree because I wanted to be liked. I wanted to belong and have a place in the world and be part of that tribe. And then I’d be with my friends who were conservatives, and I would be nodding approval to the values of faith, flag, and family. I would be cursing the liberal, cosmopolitan international elite. And I was so divided, and I lacked such integrity, really, in the way that I was responding to it. So I feel that it’s very easy to say, “We need to move beyond tribalism.” But in reality, we are all wanting to be in groups. We want places in the world. There’s something right about that desire and appetite. But ultimately, I think the stakes are so high with some of the questions that we’re facing: the ones that I’ve mentioned around the beginning of life or the end of life; around the kind of economic system in which working three different jobs may not be enough to help you and your family survive; around the criminal justice system and its injustices that we see in both your country and in my country. These issues are just too great for us to settle for taking our views and our cues from the tribes that we belong to. So I think this kind of questioning and reshaping of the package deals needs to be a huge priority for us, despite this gut level affective dimension that there is to tribalism.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned the affective dimension. By many measures, expressions of tribalism in general are increasing, but that affective dimension—that is, a sense of contempt for the other side—has also been increasing in the last few years. Generally, when political tribes begin to hate or fear each other, they are at danger for what Madison describes as the dangers of faction. [They] simply dig in and are less interested in compromise for the sake of the common good than [in] victory. I’m looking at the subtitle of your book, “Ethics Beyond Political Tribes,” and wondering, as you have surveyed the landscape in both Britain and in the United States, where not only polarization is increasing but [also] the contempt with which the sides view each other: What do you think are the prospects of a common-good ethics beyond political tribe?
James Mumford: Well, I think that there are signs for hope. I think that, curiously, the lockdown is one of them. I realize that lockdown and the response to COVID has been cynically politicized by many folks, and whether or not you wear a mask has become a political statement. You have all of that. And then you obviously have the fact that people have stayed indoors, rightly, because they’re afraid. There’s a self-preservation aspect. But I also think that what we’ve seen across our societies is an ability and a disposition to put the common good first and to put the vulnerable first, and to allow that to be a curtailment of our own freedom. That’s what I really mean by this concept of moral imagination in which resides the hope to move beyond political tribalism. So, for example, when it comes to an issue like assisted suicide, moral imagination or empathy is about holding in view that group which would be impacted by our freedom: the elderly who might be pressured to want to die prematurely if the assisted suicide option was on the table. So for me, to sacrifice for the common good requires always holding that good in mind, which I think leads to a real reluctance—I think we should be very hesitant about moving in the assisted suicide direction. But I think that’s true because of these reasons, because of the common good. So in answer to your question, it’s the hope not to stop our disagreement, but to disagree in a very different spirit with a very different attitude—in a charitable way. But [it’s] also [the hope] to put first this notion of moral imagination.
Cherie Harder: I’d love to hear more about that. But along those lines, you talked about the inconsistencies and the calcification around those inconsistencies as being a real harm to not only our individual thinking, but [also] our public discourse. You wrote this: “The danger of inconsistency isn’t just that we think the wrong way, but that we do the wrong thing. It would be great if we could dismiss inconsistency as innocuous, but the stakes could not be higher.” Of course, there are many people who have had a much more sanguine view of inconsistency. Think about Ralph Waldo Emerson calling consistency “the hobgoblin of little minds,” and others. So how necessary is consistency (intellectual consistency or otherwise) for virtue?
James Mumford: That’s a great question. I think a philosopher would probably say that it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. It isn’t enough just to be consistent, because you can have wicked worldviews like Nazism which are totally consistent but heinous. So it’s not enough just to have our views fitting together so that we’re not pro-life when it comes to one area in our polity, but not pro-life when it comes to another area—say, capital punishment. It’s not enough just to say we need to be consistent. The reason that I emphasize consistency in the book, and I think that it’s a virtue, is because I think it makes us alert to not holding views just because they’ve been tacked onto other ones in the course of history. That can’t be the basis for why we hold convictions about these key moral and ethical issues. I think the consistency or truth criterion makes us more alert to that, and that’s why I think it’s a virtue. But I don’t think it’s enough, as you say.
Cherie Harder: How have your own faith commitments affected your view of the often distorted or inconsistent political commitments and their package deals that we see so often?
James Mumford: So, I’m an Orthodox Christian. I think having worked in secular academia (by which I mean not working in seminaries) most of my career, I’ve had the experience of always having to question my own assumptions and thinking, “Do I just believe this because I was raised this way?”, and also trying to accept—interrogate, but also accept—the good and the truth in positions from contemporaries and peers and friends in the academic world who don’t share the same worldview. I think that’s a good preparation to think about political tribalism. I think that if you believe that your identity or your life is hid with Christ on a high, you think that although politics might be very, very important, and you can’t withdraw from politics, your identity is not primarily political. You’re not first a Democrat or first a Republican or first a Tory or first a member of the Labour Party. But you’re first a Christian, and that changes the way that you relate to political tribes. It obviously creates other issues in terms of tribalism and factions within Christianity, but when we’re talking about this issue of political tribalism, I think that there is the advantage of coming to something with a certain independence of mind, with a certain holding-lightly. Because I don’t think it’s the case that political parties, as important as they are, will ever capture the entirety of the Christian witness.
Cherie Harder: That is a fascinating point. It seems very clear that over the last several decades, many of the forms of our identity, whether rooted in our faith convictions, in our families, or in our place of origin, have in many ways eroded. People are more mobile. Families break up more often. Faith commitments have declined. As different forms of our identity have eroded, the politicization of our identity has grown much more robust. At the same time, our politics has gotten more apocalyptic. What hope do you have for reducing tribalism without the reinvigoration of other deeper forms of identity? Another way of saying that: is reformation possible in that area without revival?
James Mumford: I think that at the heart of Christian witness is the idea that you may not like your enemy, as Martin Luther King put it, but you need to love your enemy. That affects the way that you do Twitter, and that affects the way that you do politics. I think that it drives you to where it’s not possible to deny the humanity of the person whom you disagree with who belongs to the other tribe. So is it possible to have a kind of discourse that is more civil without a radical change in heart? I don’t think I know the answer to that question. I think that there is something about the nature of civil discourse which does have its roots not only in the Enlightenment, but in liberal Christian political thought—in the strict sense, in terms of its emphasis on freedom. I think that’s an important legacy and an important inheritance. In that way, overcoming tribalism and the moral imagination required for that is rooted in a certain kind of Christianity.
Cherie Harder: We are at the top of the hour, so we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. As Alyssa explained earlier, not only can all of our viewers ask a question, but you can also like a question that has been asked. The more a question is liked, the more likely it is that it will be answered during our next half hour. I see we have a bunch of questions stacked up. Our first question comes from an anonymous attendee who asks, “How can we convince each other that voting in elections based on our deepest moral convictions is always better than mindlessly following those we see as our political or tribal leaders?”
James Mumford: Well, that really puts more articulately than I’ve done the core message of this book “Vexed.” I think that it comes back to this notion of calling each other to be the best possible human beings we can be, in stepping back from our tribes and in thinking about the kinds of consequences our political and ethical decisions have on the most vulnerable and on the poorest. So I think it’s about calling each one of us to step back from our inherited views and to think as rationally as we can about the issues that we face.
Cherie Harder: One anonymous attendee asks, “What is the most objective news source available today?”
James Mumford: I don’t think I could think of the most objective news source available. The Englishman in me would want to talk about the BBC, but that would be very much criticized by people on the right in this country. The BBC is fantastic. But I think, just to go back to what I said, it’s okay to have biased news sources. You just have to balance them out with other biased news sources.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Peter Petite, who asked, “These days we think of making statements on social media as being engaged in the public square. Do you think that is true?”
James Mumford: That’s a good question. I don’t think it really counts. Not compared to some of the things our parents and our peers have done—the costs that they’ve suffered from the kind of political protests you saw against the Vietnam War in your country, and the kind of protests against nuclear weapons and CND in this country. When we think about the history of nonviolent protests in America, to then equate a Twitter post with that seems somewhat preposterous. So I take the force of that point, indeed.
Cherie Harder: Jenny Savage asked, “How do I question my own assumptions; i.e., what questions do you suggest I ask myself about my beliefs?”
James Mumford: Let me try and think of an example. “Who is affected by some of the beliefs and assumptions that I have?” To come back to the issue of assisted suicide, in thinking about the right to die, we don’t always think about that group that would be affected by the legalization of that right, as has gone ahead in California. Part of the issue is thinking about who is affected in some of those certain cases. It isn’t always going to be [just] that, because that makes me sound very—to use philosophical jargon —consequentialist. But it’s part of the answer.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Maya Maley, who says, “Both of you have incredible bookshelves behind you. Including your book, James, what other classic or modern texts would you encourage us to read on this topic?”
James Mumford: I think the book “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter is a great book. Obviously, he [also] wrote “Culture Wars.” In my book, I try to follow the symmetry that he strictly adheres to in criticizing the left and criticizing the right in equal measure. He does that in “Culture Wars” and also in “To Change the World,” and I think he does it brilliantly. In terms of the moral imagination, I take that phrase from a literary critic called David Bromwich in his essay “Moral Imagination” for the literary journal Raritan, [which] was a big influence on my book.
Cherie Harder: You were speaking of culture war a moment ago. Our next question comes from an anonymous attendee who asks, “Does tribalism inevitably lead to militancy and a culture war?”
James Mumford: It depends if we’re using the word tribalism to already describe the militancy. The fact that people belong, as we were discussing, I don’t think necessarily leads to what we are seeing at the moment. I think we’d have to be quite fatalistic to think that, and to think that the only way we could undo and go back on where we are at the moment, in terms of the bitter partisanship, is if people no longer identified with groups or imaginary communities. So I think that there must be a way of identifying with groups, thinking that I am a conservative or I am progressive, and that there are certain principles that are important to me, but not thinking that means I have to accept the whole package deal. There must be a way forward on that.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Bob Fryling, who asks, “How does one work with arguments of false equivalencies that often end up with a lack of agreement [about], or at least understanding of, what is predominantly true?”
James Mumford: I don’t quite understand that question, actually.
Cherie Harder: I guess in general, when dealing with arguments about false equivalencies when you’re trying to get at the truth, how does one deal with that? [There is] the tendency towards essentially the “Middle East blood feud” between two different sides, [where one side] equates something fairly heinous with something relatively innocuous. That seems to be a characteristic of a lot of the rhetoric that we have.
James Mumford: That makes more sense. How do we avoid that? I think we have to pay more attention to the detail of the thing which is in question and being equated with another thing. It takes time, doesn’t it, to establish why something might be an equivalent act and why it may not be. I think that comes back to your point that sometimes this isn’t the kind of work that you can do on Twitter. This is the sort of work that requires greater reflection.
Cherie Harder: Roger Trigg asked this: “On both sides of the Atlantic, universities appear to be encouraging tribalism by not insisting that students consider alternative positions if they are offended by them. This did not used to be the case. What can be done?”
James Mumford: I think Roger makes an excellent point. We’re seeing the pressure on free speech in this country, in university contexts, and it means that certain views don’t get airings because they seem to trigger and seem to cause offense. We don’t want to give a license to talking in particularly vicious ways about subjects; we want to make sure that free speech doesn’t become a license for vitriol and for making arguments in ways that are deeply offensive. But we also want to allow space for dissident views to exist, because when dissident views don’t exist, we know that we’re in trouble. We’re in some of those realities that Orwell described and that we experienced in the twentieth century. So I think Roger is right to be concerned about that issue. And I think it’s important for us to realize that holding a certain view doesn’t mean that you disdain the people that you’re talking about in the view.
Cherie Harder: There’s a poignant question from an anonymous attendee who says, “Do you think we have moved beyond the point where secular, political, cultural, and social solutions can fix the country? Is even the gospel insufficient in the world today? It certainly seems that way. I’d like your comments.”
James Mumford: Well, after the week that you’ve had, it seems like a necessary but a testing time to talk about hope beyond political tribalism. I’m so sorry for this extraordinary grief that you are experiencing in your culture at this time. But I think that this is time for thinking about hope, and I think it’s time for thinking about how we move people beyond being stuck in these tribal grooves that we’ve gotten into. I think that the gospel does still have resonance, because I think that whilst on the one hand, like I said, being committed to the gospel means not thinking the politics is the most important thing, being committed to the gospel also means that you can’t take the withdrawal-from-the-world option seriously. It’s not really an option. I think that we see enough of the significance of the gospel when it pervades and trickles down into a culture—we see enough fruit from that to think that even in this kind of situation, the gospel can bear fruit and lead to more just social situations.
Cherie Harder: One of our viewers, Lawrence Lamb, wrote in, “I don’t fit any tribe. I run left on health care and environment and run right on social and fiscal policy issues. I’m also an evangelical and hold a PhD with fellowships in molecular biology—all contrasts. Is it possible for those such as I to have a voice in the midst of this cacophony? What would you suggest?”
James Mumford: I’d suggest starting your own political party. One thing we haven’t talked about is how an electorate reshapes the political alternatives. I think it’s people like Lawrence that are so crucial to creating new groups around new formations of positions, which those in power and our representatives will respond to. I think that could be a major source of hope. I, like Lawrence, don’t really feel that I fit in either. But I want a politics that represents me better.
Cherie Harder: A provocative question from David Durham: “At what point do you think evangelicals in particular begin to vilify the practice of questioning conventional wisdom, and why?”
James Mumford: Do you get that question?
Cherie Harder: I think he is asking if you believe there is a time that the practice of questioning conventional wisdom fell out of favor among evangelicals.
James Mumford: I see. I’m not sure I know enough about American religious history to answer that question. When you think about the mid-century, and I’ve mentioned pro-life Democrats earlier in your program, I think that there was there was a calling to account that happened at that point among the Catholic Church. He’s asking about evangelicalism, but [there was] a calling to account between those years of 1945 and 1960 when the Catholic Church was leading, and America and the world was responding, before the 60s, to issues around international human rights. I think that counted as a very important moment in which conventional wisdom was challenged by a religious group. I think obviously since the culture wars, since Nixon, and since the late 1980s, you’ve seen a different kind of pattern. But I don’t think it’s necessarily my place to comment on American religious history and mistakes that evangelicals may or may not have made.
Cherie Harder: Fair enough. Our next question comes from an anonymous attendee, and I think this is a question that a lot of us have wrestled with. They ask, “Considering the difficulty in developing real dialogue on social media that you spoke to earlier, how can we best persuade others and challenge their thinking in a productive manner during quarantine?”
James Mumford: That’s a very good question. I think it’s maybe about liking and forwarding and distributing arguments that are made in ways that are charitable, like you said. I think it’s [about] the kind of things that we give air to through social media and that we encourage other people to give air to. For example, I think it’s important that we always take those we disagree with at their best and that we don’t just reduce them to their most absurd. I think our use of language changes when we do that. It’s very countercultural, as you said, the sort of engagement and reflection I’m talking about. I don’t think it means we should all shut down our Twitter accounts; I just think it means even there we could do things more redemptively.
Cherie Harder: A follow-up question from another anonymous viewer: “In your observation, what are the best ways to go about persuading someone or trying to change their mind?”
James Mumford: I like pointing towards sources which are independent of me, so it’s not just me explaining the view, but it’s me pointing towards a particular video or particular podcast or particular article or book which gives the position that I’m advocating at its best. If they accept or reject that, they’re not accepting or rejecting you; there’s a certain objective distance. So I think it’s about hunting for resources. That’s personally how I like to engage with people—rather than just making it about the triumph of my own brilliance, which will obviously not end up triumphing over them.
Cherie Harder: Our next anonymous viewer asks, “How did writing this book shape and change who you are and how you personally think?”
James Mumford: In lots of different ways. I think, like I said before, it’s changed the way that I think about a number of different issues. Doing research on economic uncertainty, and the way that labor has over the last generation not captured productivity gains like capital has, has made me think much more deeply about economic issues. The research there has sort of transformed the way I think about the working poor. I think that in terms of my relation to people, I hope that I pigeonhole people less. I hope that I’ve become better at listening.
Cherie Harder: This next question comes from John Sailer, who asks, “Are you hoping to eliminate package-deal ethical frameworks or to reconfigure them? When you talk about political tribalism, it sounds like you’re saying that there’s something problematic by nature about these package deals. At the same time, you point out that many of these package deals are merely inconsistent—we need better ones rather than to eliminate them. Curious to hear your thoughts.”
James Mumford: That really gets to the nub of the question that I was pressed on by lots of friends and colleagues when I was writing the book. [I end] up having particular views on, say, controversial things like the beginning and the end of life, or the environment, or sexual consumerism and materialism. I do end up coming down on certain lines and taking certain positions. And if you add up those different positions, you get to a bundle of views. So from one point of view, to say anything substantive in a book will mean that you offer a different package of positions. But I think what I’m trying to say is that how we reach those positions is vital. Through a process of reflection and thought and engagement with the world in a more personal way, we end up with a different group of positions which don’t map on identically to political platforms of parties which are being scooped up in contingent historical circumstances. So it’s the “why.” That’s what I’m trying to capture in the word “package”: that [positions shouldn’t be] just a package deal.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from an anonymous attendee who says, “Even if an individual can be consistent and unbundle certain issues in her own mind, what does she do with that, given that the political parties will continue to bundle inconsistent issues in efforts to build coalitions?”
James Mumford: I think the first thing I’m trying to say in “Vexed” is [that] it’s not just about how we should vote. It’s about how we should live and how we relate to these different issues, and how we make decisions in our own lives—about what we do with our wallets and what we do with our bodies, and about sex and the beginning of life and obligations to our parents, and all of these different fronts that we’re engaged in. I think that we shouldn’t be taking our cues from these package deals and we shouldn’t be governed. So in some ways, what I’m saying is kind of apolitical. But in other ways, going back to what I said a couple of questions ago, I think that ultimately we should be trying to pressure politicians to represent us better and to reshape their offers to us.
Cherie Harder: A question from Gif Thornton: “I sense that tribes are picking and choosing elements of the gospel to support their positions, rather than going to the gospel to define how they think and arrive at political positions. How do we combat that?”
James Mumford: I think the question of the sorts of political positions and ethical positions one [has] and how one derives those from the Scriptures and from the gospel is obviously an enormous question. But I think that there is a certain consistency to Christian witness when it comes to, say, the value of life. Tom Holland writes in his new book “Millennium” about the revolution that occurred when Christianity brought into view this new apprehension and appreciation for the dignity of every man, woman, and child. I think that is a driving force behind Christian ethics which does impose a certain unity on positions. And I think that giving a sense of that is really helpful in talking about ethics and how you derive those from the Scriptures.
Cherie Harder: We have more questions, but the witching hour is almost upon us. We’ll just take one more question from Tim Carroll, who asks, “Do you think that multicultural churches could be a major step forward against polarization?”
James Mumford: I think absolutely. I think multicultural [churches] provide a picture of what it’s like to live with differences. And I think they are beautiful pictures of that. The reality of how that comes about in spaces where there is much more segregation on the ground, in communities in Britain and communities in the United States—that’s a tall order. But where they do exist, I think they do provide a beautiful picture of that.
James Mumford: My favorite poet, T. S. Eliot (who was an American, despite the fact that he wanted to be a Brit), said that “right action is freedom from past and future also.” I think that getting it right on our ethics is a freedom from the way that past political configurations have determined things for us. So I think there’s a real freedom in moving beyond tribalism and thinking again about some of these issues.
Cherie Harder: James, thank you for that, and thank you for joining us. To all of our viewers, thank you for the compliment of your time and attention. Have a great weekend.