The Coarsening Yet Hope of the American Mind


Babies being wrenched from parents, disquieting authoritarian alliances, alarming levels of civil and political discord–this is our country in the summer of 2018.
To be sure there are also positive developments but are they reliable, enduring?
While many of us are wringing our hands asking “how in the world we got here?” Perhaps the more accurate question is “Why, given our mercantile-materialist past, shouldn’t we have gotten here?”  In his 1978 book The Illusion of Technique, public philosopher William Barrett forewarned of the damage being done through our reliance on devices–rather than people–to staunch our moral predicaments; and we should have paid more attention.
Today we are stained with the legacy of all those who fell –wittingly and unwittingly –under the spell of a “machine model for living.”  This model emphasized efficiency (or what many called efficiency): speed, instant results, appearance and packaging; and it lured millions to the marketplace–or killing fields. The result however was anything but “efficient” in the larger sense. We created ease and convenience, to be sure.  But the advances were largely external–relegated to how fast we drove, how quickly we ate, how many gadgets we owned or people we manipulated; but our interior life, our capacity to feel and reflect and communicate was left bereft.
The result is that, today, too many of us have become calculative and consumerist giants but emotional and imaginative dwarfs, steely and impenetrable, but bereft of nuance, attunement, and depth;  and this is precisely our dilemma.
From my standpoint as a psychologist, there are two likely outcomes issuing from this dilemma:  One, our citizenry will devolve into drone-like functionaries, programmed for elemental self-interest or two, we will confront the moral crisis of our time–the quick fix instant results society–and engage our abilities to be more fully present, both to ourselves and those about us. This engagement will take time–more like what we see consistently in psychotherapeutic settings, but it will help us see each other as complex human beings; persons both unique and yet alike.
While there are myriad paths to the latter and more hopeful alternative of engagement, the grass roots phenomenon known as dialogue groups is exciting particular interest.  Consider, for example, a group called the “Better Angels.”  Comprised of ordinary and concerned citizens, the Better Angels is bringing liberals and conservatives together for “living room” dialogues throughout the U.S.  Moreover, these in-depth potentially bridgebuilding conversations are gathering momentum. According to a CBS News report of March 26, 2018, over a thousand people had taken part in Better Angels’ workshops across 31 states, and almost 150 towns and cities will be launching workshops this year.   USA Today has estimated that as of June 26, 2018 Better Angels had 3100 dues-paying members, and philanthropic organizations from the left-leaning William and Flora Hewlett Corporation to the right-tending Koch Corporation are supporting its cause.

Image courtesy of jesse orrico.

This is a remarkable development that resonates with our other American tradition of tolerance for and discovery of the “stranger;” and it has the potential to reshape voting patterns. Indeed if the movement becomes large enough and enough voters see its logic, it could signal a radical shift to what I call the “fluid center.” This is a capacity to hold and work with contrasting and sometimes contradictory perspectives, but within a stabilizing and supportive stance. This is a stance that has been sought after by philosophers from Rumi to Heschel to Tillich but that is virtually unprecedented as a grass-roots populist movement that could prod voters from a fear-based sectarianism to a more discernment-based ecumenism. Or to put it more broadly, that could shift voters from what I have called a “polarized mind” or fixation on a single point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view, to a more flexible, adaptive mentality.
How then do we actualize this mentality?  We will need many more living-room style dialogues as I call for in my book The Spirituality of Awe: Challenges to the Robotic Revolution and as eloquently highlighted in Peter Gabel’s new treatise The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self. We will also need the practical realization of these calls as promoted by groups like the Better Angels, the Center for Nonviolent Communication, the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues, and the Experiential Democracy Project. Finally, we will need many more substantive, thoughtfully facilitated encounters among persons, as opposed to the stick-figures portrayed in media or at political rallies.
In short, we will need a larger vision, not only of our country, but of life itself; a vision that jars us out of our comfort zones and opens us to the wonder, adventure, and indeed awe of coexisting with diverse lives.
Kirk J. Schneider, Ph.D.  is a member of Better Angels and the Network of Spiritual Progressives.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Saybrook University and Teachers College Columbia University, and he is the author of “The Polarized Mind” and “The Spirituality of Awe.”  For more information on Kirk Schneider’s work visit

2 thoughts on “The Coarsening Yet Hope of the American Mind

  1. From everyday citizens to state legislators to Congress, people have become more and more “to themselves” and not only less open to others’ views but often refusing to even acknowledge the others existence. If we could start conversations in living rooms with a few fellow workers, church members, relatives, or other friends, perhaps we could all move a little toward the other. One subject might be addressed at each meeting. Not only would everyone gain in understanding, but expanded and good relationships might be formed.

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