Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society

From Enemy to Adversary

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Jason A. Springs
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society, Jason Springs fruitfully brings together the different academic worlds in which he moves—religious ethics, moral philosophy, and peace studies—to frame an inquiry about the possibilities and limits of democracy in our tense times. The book interleaves essays written by Springs over the last ten years or so, effectively guiding the reader through recent debates about the place of religious reasoning in public and the ability of democratic practices and institutions to handle conflicting notions of what is good and right.

Springs begins with neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty’s “moral imagination.” Springs describes moral imagination as a set of skills and habits, a discipline involving self-criticism that cultivates “the capacity and desire to make oneself vulnerable to the experiences and condition of someone that one may be inclined to find repugnant, or perhaps worse, for whom one is utterly unconcerned” (15). The empathy and perspective taking involved in moral imagination already move us past the kinds of neutral and sanitized spaces liberals like John Rawls imagine for discourse, but Springs finds Rorty’s position lacking in two respects: “It fails to cut to the structural roots and cultural hold of injustice, on one hand, and fails to conceptualize the depth and persistence—indeed the inevitability—of conflict and opposition on the other” (17). To remedy these two problems, Springs turns to prophetic pragmatism in the first case and to agonistic democracy in the second. 

Cornel West’s prophetic pragmatism surges past the “democratic social transformation” envisioned by classical pragmatists and even the neo-pragmatism of Rorty. West calls for a “fugitive” and “radical” practice of democracy. Prophetic pragmatism requires a deep analysis of cultural, political, and economic systems that perpetuate injustice, one that takes up “a relentless diagnosis and tracking of the catastrophic realities facing the most vulnerable” (68). Prophetic pragmatism deploys democratic practices to root out systems of domination, while avoiding “utopian thinking or romanticized understandings of revolution” (69). Thus, the democratic hope of prophetic pragmatism is neither the bourgeoisie faith in democracy exhibited by classical pragmatists or the utopian hope of revolutionary thinking, but a “hope against hope” that recognizes that the struggle for justice is ongoing and involves many gains and losses.

But pragmatic visions of democracy at best leave the persistence of conflict in democracies unanalyzed and at worst perpetuate an accommodationist approach wherein real differences and basic commitments are bracketed in the name of a tranquil or “civil” discourse (211). Springs turns to Chantal Mouffe’s “agonistic pluralism” to overcome this deficit. Mouffe draws a difference between antagonism and agonism. Antagonism seeks to defeat the enemy or perhaps even eliminate them. Agonism sees the opponent as adversary rather than enemy, where adversaries are “those whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question” (215). The strength of this position according to Springs is that it acknowledges the relational nature of conflict. “At the bare minimum, Mouffe suggests that this mutuality occurs in the recognition by each party of the other’s basic right to exist, accompanied by recognition of the other as a legitimate participant to whom one is accountable in social and political contexts the two parties share” (223). 

While Mouffe carves out a place for conflict in democratic practice, Springs still wants to press further to a valuing of conflict itself. Drawing from the field of peace studies, Springs presses toward his notion of “healthy conflict” by explicating “conflict transformation.” Conflict transformation “reconceptualizes conflict as a driving force for systemic change” (244). Violence rather than conflict is the problem. Violence is not simply an extension of conflict; rather, violence occurs when anyone dominates another physically, politically, socially, or culturally. Conflict points to these instances of domination and violence and allows for the possibility of transformation of the structures of injustice.

Springs’s choice of examples of where healthy conflict has been practiced or could be helpful is interesting. Often he expertly turns to historical analysis of the work of Martin Luther King Jr., for he finds in his mission and message the marks of healthy conflict: 1) the pursuit of justice; 2) practical analysis of structures of power; and 3) a respect for the humanity of the adversary (256). But even though the book was published in 2018, there is slim and passing reference to the turmoil caused by the election and presidency of Donald Trump. The president who plays a prominent role in the book is rather Barack Obama and the conflict is that between him and the prophet, Cornel West. This treatment is helpful indeed and Springs shows how healthy conflict plays out in true prophecy. But I think it’s fair for the reader to ask what healthy conflict looks like when faced with the bellicose if not bullying rhetoric and actions of President Trump. Springs probably points us in the right direction in a brief passage in his conclusion. He reminds us that structural racism (the war on crime and drugs, the rolling back of civil rights, mass incarceration), for example, is not the invention of Donald Trump and is in no way new. “These deeper relational patterns—antecedents to the specific episodes of contemporary hatred—have fed the eruption of similar occurrences of violence all along the way, even when less pronounced, explained away, or altogether ignored” (319). Springs reminds us to attend to the structures rather than being distracted by personality. But questions remain. One is left to wonder how one maintains even an agonistic relationship with an adversary who is not a plain-dealer and whose values seem to be unmoored. One wonders whether we’ve reached a tipping point of “gut” reasoning that lurches us into a dangerous anti-intellectualism and narcissistic decision making. One wonders the extent to which a reality show presidency marked by demands of personal loyalty, a denial of facticity, a winner-takes-all strategy, and a disdain for democratic institutions can be resisted by any sort of practice of democracy, however radical or transformative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel J. Ott is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Coordinator of the Peace, Ethics, and Social Justice Program at Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jason A. Springs is Associate Professor of Religion, Ethics, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. Springs's articles appear in the Journal of Religious Ethics, the Journal for the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Religion, and Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. He is the author of Toward a Generous Orthodoxy: Prospects for Hans Frei's Postliberal Theology (2010), and co-author (with Atalia Omer) of Religious Nationalism: A Reference Handbook (2013).


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