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Charting Public Discourse’s Past and Future: A Conversation between Serena Sigillito and Elayne Allen

Our hope is that, by reading PD regularly, our readers will be formed in such a way that they have not only knowledge on particular topics, but also virtuous habits of mind. By illustrating the capacity to earnestly and carefully think through what’s good and what's bad about both conservative and liberal positions, we show that sobriety and careful, detached thinking is still possible—that we really can have knowledge about the truths that give order to our being.

Serena Sigillito: Elayne, I’m so happy to welcome you to the Public Discourse team as our new managing editor! I know that when I step down from my post as editor at the end of October, the journal’s operations will be in good hands.

Could you tell our readers what drew you to apply for the job at Public Discourse?

Elayne Allen: When I learned about the opening, I immediately knew I wanted to apply. I have long aspired to work for a longer-form journal that features interdisciplinary commentary on public life. I think magazines that fall somewhere between news analysis and academic journals play a vital role in national conversation. The best of these publications invite readers to pause and investigate what’s going on behind the frenzy of daily headlines. 

By defining a set of principles to guide its reflections—e.g., that sexual choices and embodiment matter, that markets and political goods require careful balancing, and that respecting the dignity of human beings must be a bedrock principle of society—PD offers clarity and avoids the unphilosophical, reflexive quality that plagues partisan publications. It also creates ample space for debate on how such principles should be applied, and room for inquiry and wonder where mystery seems to prevail.

SS: In an email to me, you recently wrote, “So many old categories of conservatism are in a fluid state. I think PD is well-suited to be a place where the various positions are articulated intelligently. I want us to be the place where the provisional and the permanent are sorted through, where we successfully avoid losing sight of anchoring truths, the foremost being that the most important thing human beings can do is know and love their Maker.”

In one sense, I think this is very much in line with the way that, say, our founder Ryan Anderson has spoken about our mission. In our editorial statements, we’ve often distinguished between matters of principle, on which our editors and authors are united, and matters of prudence, on which we entertain a wide range of opinions. That’s one of the things I love about PD: it maintains openness to disagreement on a wide range of issues.

But I think it’s really interesting that you took that a step further, explicitly saying that we don’t want to lose sight of the most important thing, which is faith in God. That’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? The vast majority of our writers and readers are people of faith—mostly Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and a few Muslims. But we historically have emphasized a natural law approach, appealing to human reason rather than revelation. In our Five Pillar framework, for example, religion is not explicitly named as one of the pillars of a thriving society.

 

In my experience, younger Catholics who are interested in politics tend to be suspicious of the ability of their fellow citizens to grasp things based on natural law or reason alone. There is a sense that we should just be open and honest about the religious basis for our arguments and the need to convert our fellow citizens. Because neutrality is impossible, they reason, we need to be striving to build a society based on faith in God, with laws reflecting transcendent reality.

You’re a couple of years younger than I am, so I’m curious: do you think that PD should be more explicitly religious? Or is there still a space for natural law approaches?

EA: Wow, you’re starting off with the hard-hitting questions! You point to a question that’s been in the back of my mind as I think about Public Discourse, its mission, and what we should doing in the future.

I don’t think any of us can really proceed upon pure rationality or mechanistic logic alone. We’re in a novel situation that so many of us have to proceed within the confines of naked reason, couching our arguments in a way that is palatable to a more secular audience, without reference to any sort of God. For the vast majority of human history, it seems like humanity has accepted the fact that we are not the arbiters of our own existence, and that there’s some source beyond ourselves for being.

Personally, I feel very comfortable making arguments proceeding from assumptions about God’s existence. I actually think that such arguments are more interesting to a secular audience. Some people dismiss the idea of God as juvenile, but I think a lot of religiously unaffiliated nonetheless are nebulously spiritual (as Tara Isabella Burton has excellently documented).

I think that people are hungry for more, and as Christians who engage in the project of public reason we shouldn’t hide the fact that we believe in a Divine Author. Now, I don’t think you have to believe in God to engage in reasonable debate. People might disagree about the source of their reason, but they’re still able to deploy it in conversation. So maybe this is where I do have some compatibility with the new natural lawyers!

 

SS: The naked public square you referenced is associated with John Rawls, who used the language of “a veil of ignorance,” behind which you have to hide your ultimate moral commitments and couch things within the language of secular public reason. My understanding is that Robby George, the leading light of Witherspoon intellectually, has built his career opposing that idea, saying “No, you can and in fact should bring moral commitments into public reason and into these questions about how we live our lives together.”

So it’s interesting, because in some ways, I think he gets caricatured by a lot of younger conservatives, particularly Catholics who find integralism appealing. They may be more aligned with Robby on this question than they think they are.

On the other hand, I think that Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may be less constantly confronted with the ways that our culture malforms people than Millennials and Gen Zers are. I know that he doesn’t like to be described as an “optimist” and prefers to describe himself as “hopeful,” but I do think that Robby is more sanguine than many of our younger readers are about the average person’s capacity to grasp what is good and to reason about it. It seems like, among many of our fellow citizens, that capacity is being crippled not just by sin—which it always has been, throughout human history—but also by certain distinctively modern habits of mind and life that are actively antithetical to the development of both intellectual and moral virtue. Our constant obsession with our phones and social media is obviously one of those habits, but I’m also thinking of the increasingly popular norms of discourse that see truth as a function of power.

In much of our society, there’s no shared belief that we can reason together towards some external truth. Rather, words in and of themselves are seen assertions of power and dominance that have the capability of inflicting very real violence upon others, even negating their very existence.

 

EA: Yeah, it seems like there are two dominant dispositions within culture right now. On the one hand, there’s this profound indifferentism towards any sort of engagement and dialogue, any sort of quest for truth. It doesn’t really consider reason as a means for discovering of anything lasting or of substance. I think this is a product of some of what you’re describing—addiction to smartphones and obsession with self-presentation online. And I think that this indifferentism can be overwhelming and totalizing.

On the other hand, there’s this rejection of reason as a way of pursuing knowledge. Instead, it’s a way of harming other people, a tool to gain power or status. Our intellect is just how we gain a foothold in the world. So there’s either cynicism, on the one hand, or indifference on the other. Very few people seem optimistic about our ability to think.

It seems like no one is confident that there can be comprehensive doctrine that’s true, philosophically cogent, and existentially satisfying. The fact that this is a relatively commonplace stance seems kind of novel within the scope of intellectual history.

SS: Increasingly, it seems like human beings are viewed as deeply and unconsciously embedded within social structures, which produce what we call “truth,” which doesn’t actually exist. Even if you are a person of goodwill, it is assumed that you can’t ever reason objectively, by virtue of your position within these structures that have been built up to oppress certain classes of people and to elevate others. You are not only it complicit in the injustice morally, but also unable to see your own complicity. Even if you think you’re pursuing some ideal of objective truth, you’re really just ratifying those unjust structures, trying to hold on to your own power or to your privileged position. Some people take this a step farther and conclude that the practice of reason is itself oppressive. So it’s hard to get to that starting point of assuming the goodwill of your interlocutor. You can’t just say “Come, let us reason together” and expect to get a fruitful response.

EA: I always wonder first, how firm the commitment to that position is, and second, how many people are committed to that position? Upon deeper examination, how many would continue to adhere to it, even if very rigorously challenged by what seems to me the more reasonable position?

Going back to PD, and what its role could be in public dialogue, I think that by illustrating the capacity to earnestly think through carefully what’s good and what’s bad about both conservative and liberal positions, I think we can show that sobriety and careful, detached thinking is still possible. I think the best way to do that is by embodying what we think is possible in terms of reasoning. Hopefully, by observing judicious thinking in action, people can come a little bit closer to being persuaded that we really can have knowledge about truths that give order our being.

What about you? How do you think about the primary aims of PD’s work?

SS: I think about it in terms of forming our readers deeply over time. We have had some pieces really go viral, of course. Those are usually first-person narratives on hot-button social topics, wedded with rigorous philosophical and sociological analysis to back up the argument embedded within the story. Pieces like that tend to reach a very broad audience. But our standard day-to-day content tends to be read by a smaller group of people who are already on board with our basic commitments.

My hope is that by reading PD regularly, being tuned into the debates that are happening and being given helpful ways to think about them, our readers will be formed in such a way that they have not only knowledge on these particular topics, but also virtuous habits of mind. They can then enter their own spheres of influence and engage charitably but honestly with people who disagree with them.

I think that both large-scale conversions and smaller-scale changes of heart tend to happen within the context of particular relationships of trust. So I think it’s ultimately not going to be PD out there changing lots of people’s hearts and minds. But over time, my hope is that we’re forming people who are then going out and establishing relationships with people in their communities who agree with them, people who disagree with them—whoever goes to their schools and churches or lives in their neighborhood or works with them. It’s sort of a model of subsidiarity, where we’re each functioning within our own spheres of influence. It’s this long, slow work of cultural renewal. It’s not flashy, but it does make a difference, I hope.

 

EA: Yeah. It seems like not enough influential publications think about their mission for their readers and writers in this way. I think there’s a temptation to publish the flashiest and the most alluring content, the sort of headlines that make people angry and get them to click. But there’s not always a longer-term, farsighted vision about how that’s actually going to form readers’ habits of mind.

One thing I’ve always really appreciated about PD is that it doesn’t seem to be playing that game. It seems to be more interested in instilling habits of thoughtfulness and reasonableness and even patience, which seems embedded in Public Discourse’s self-understanding. Maybe we don’t get the most clicks, because we’re not focusing primarily on the hot, outrage-inducing topics of the day. Instead, we’re thinking about how readers can reenter their communities and interact fruitfully with their colleagues and families. And that seems like a much more worthwhile way to engage in debate.

SS: One of the challenges that PD has faced has to do with, for lack of a better term, branding. If you think about us in relation to other comparatively situated conservative outlets, a lot of them—especially since 2016—have really aggressively staked out a spot in a particular camp, ideologically and politically. Identifying as a PD reader or author is not a very clear way to stake out a position within those debates, compared with many of these other journals and magazines.

I think it’s a real strength of PD that we haven’t done that and that we can host people on all sides of these intra-conservative debates. But I also think sometimes people see it as either weak or disingenuous, a way of silently taking a position in the favor of that more relativistic, liberal, naked public square.

Until the last month or two, when you came on board here, you’ve been viewing it more from the outside. So, I’m curious: What is your impression of people’s view of PD? Do these characteristics seem to draw them in or turn them away?

EA: Oh, man. I don’t know. I live in Washington, DC, and I have a wide range of acquaintances who fall within the various camps in the intra-conservative debates right now. Some do seem frustrated with the temptation and impulse amongst other conservative publications to define themselves in the way you describe. If you too rigorously embrace one particular strategic approach to politics, and order all your content according to that approach, such that it becomes your center of gravity, there’s a danger that your content can become predictable, bland, and repetitive. More importantly, you can become blind to important new developments in the cultural landscape and public mind.

 

SS: So who do you think we ideally should be trying to reach? Are there certain constituencies you think currently aren’t reading PD, but should be?

EA: I wish PD could reach more of the people who read more inflammatory news websites—people who tend to have a bad media diet that’s making them cynical. I think a lot of people are searching for answers amid our cultural flux and confusion. Sometimes people’s only exposure to political analysis and deeper questions comes from YouTube personalities and hyper-partisan websites.

I wouldn’t say that people should cut out these types of media entirely, but I do wish they could also learn to take part in the kinds of conversations we have, in the ways we’re having them. We’re not as flashy, because we don’t try to make our opponents look foolish, and we don’t state our conclusions in the most drastic terms possible. But for those who really want answers, there are a lot of smaller, longer-form publications with a wide range of intellectual leanings doing excellent work: The New Atlantis, The Lamp, National Affairs, The Point, Hedgehog Review, and Plough, to name a few. I like to think of PD alongside those places, too. We exist for the sake of those whose minds long for a deeper understanding about what’s happening now and what the more perennial features of existence might be. I hope they peruse our pages.

 

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