Why Politics at the Dinner Table Is Good for Democracy

Our political process, Robert Jensen reminds us, begins with conversation.
Dan Mason

Photo by Dan Mason / Flickr.

Defying the conventional wisdom that we get along best by avoiding public talk about religion or politics, Robert Jensen asks, “What else is there of interest to discuss?” In Arguing For Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog he proposes that restoring our lost faith in “the possibility of honest argumentation in public” requires honing our critical thinking skills and putting them to more frequent use. Democracy, he reminds us, begins in conversation.

Jensen offers a lucid account of critical thinking as a basis for reviving our democracy.

Jensen envisions a society in which ordinary people routinely face the issues that threaten to discourage, divide, or even destroy us, by discussing them, critically and publicly. The book provides clear, “simple but not simplistic” frameworks for engaging in more constructive dialog about the issues that matter most. To do so, we must question assumptions, define key terms, and present evidence.

Take religion. For Jensen, it is “a vehicle for struggling with those basic questions about what it means to be a human being.” Defined in these inclusive terms, we cannot treat religion solely as a private matter, or as a privileged source of dogmatic answers to questions of public policy.

This leads Jensen to pose a question we typically avoid, because it may seem disrespectful or irreligious: Is fundamentalism compatible with critical thinking?

Defining fundamentalism as an “approach to the world, rooted in the mistaking of limited human knowledge for complete wisdom,” Jensen recognizes that not all religions are fundamentalist and he observes that fundamentalism is not unique to religion. He models how critical discussion might challenge not only religious but also national, technological, or economic versions of fundamentalism.

Arguing for Our Lives is admirably brief and accessible but also rewardingly nuanced and challenging. At a time when many find fault with U.S. public life, Jensen offers a lucid account of critical thinking as a basis for reviving our democracy and a practical guide to engaging in that vital activity.