Are Any Truths Self-Evident?


[Note: The following is a reprint of the weekend edition of the Braver Angels Newsletter, originally published June 13, 2021. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.]

I’m Luke Nathan Phillips, Publius Fellow for Public Discourse here at Braver Angels. The coming week is the National Week of Conversation, and along with many other organizations in the depolarization and bridge-building space, we at Braver Angels are hosting several events in the NWOC theme. Skip halfway down this email for links to some exciting forthcoming events and offerings, but meantime, I’d like to share some thoughts on the idea of conversation itself and what it means in our own times.

My least favorite bit of American civic scripture is in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” We have invariably interpreted it to mean exactly what it sounds like—that some things are just true, by plain, common sense, and require no further explanation, no further argument. And some things might in fact be true, of course.

But if common sense really does explain things foundational to who we are, or things crucial to public safety or social cohesion or mere justice and decency, why should anyone have to explain those things?

If a widely-held and comprehensive opinion on something like, I don’t know, the integrity of our electoral system, or the role of science in policy making, or the limits of tolerance, or the definition of diversity, or the justice of social unrest, or foreign meddling in our politics, or something else of direct relevance to my personal life and our common life, is self-evident, why should I even have to argue for it? Isn’t someone who questions it in some sense threatening the common good? Aren’t they annoying at best and dangerous at worst?

So there’s a sense in which one of the most famous and sacred strands of American political DNA—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—actually makes our common life together harder, by rhetorically and psychologically conditioning us against the need for and validity of conversation, even if for the best of reasons.

And yet, everything great and lasting that’s ever been done in American public life has been done in large degree by collaboration, compromise, consensus—by conversation.

Consider all the great controversies of the past year and a half or so, the things that gripped America for month after agonizing month—the impeachment, the pandemic, the lockdown, the protests, the election, the challenge to the election, and more. In all these real-life dramas and epics and tragedies, and the roiling discourse around them that drove us to our corners, it was quite difficult to have conversations with those whose understandings were antithetical to our own, and sometimes it was hard even to live with them.

It was never just anyone’s preferences or opinions at stake. More often it was whole systems of values in conflict, whole worldviews and lived experiences set against each other, whole ways of understanding freedom and justice and identity and reality itself. The personal was political and the political was personal.

For those of us who were looking for it, we had it proved for us yet again, that the American attachment to self-evident truth is alive with us, in us, now, as much as it ever has been.

In these last 18 months I heard more often than ever, from people I love and respect, the usual refrains about why they can’t support civil discourse work: “This time it’s different.” “You can’t have conversations about that if people don’t acknowledge others’ humanity.” “I care about people’s lives, not civility.” “Maybe we do need a war…”  

And yet we didn’t need a war. We at Braver Angels and so many Americans of goodwill had these conversations, we didn’t exclude people—we brought them in. All the dramas the history books will recount for the Long Year 2020, we at Braver Angels engaged head-on in our debates, our workshops, our forums, our podcast interviews, in our conversations with colleagues and friends and loved ones in the quiet of our own lives, sometimes in our conversations with ourselves in the quiet of our own souls.

We proved to ourselves and to our country, inviting our fellow Americans along every step of the way, that free people do not have to destroy each other, do not have to conquer each other, do not have to convert each other, as part and parcel of political life. We believed in and lived another way, another way which, when the storm clouds converge again, we must not forget.

Conversation is in some sense the basic situation of American life, no matter how hard things get. When the occasion is piled high with difficulty, let us rise to the occasion.

And when we decide what to do, let us not sit on the self-evidence of our convictions, but work and strive and argue with each other, as Americans always have.

» On Thursday, Braver Angels is running a national debate on the resolution, “Resolved: Citizens threatening violent resistance against oppression is a crucial check and balance in the American political system.” Does the fact that we’re debating this fill you with anger, or fear, or contempt? That’s a sign that you should join us: National Debate: Violence in the Political Process.

Here’s what else is going on around Braver Angels this week:

And finally, I hope you’ll support Braver Angels’ June fundraising drive.

In 2020, amidst a series of cascading crises, Braver Angels showed America what’s possible when we find the courage to unite — not in agreement, but in support of our fellow citizens and in a shared conviction that our democracy depends on our ability to talk to one another.

We quadrupled our membership and saturated the national media. We expanded our program to include new workshops, debates, and trainings; created a 50-state network of volunteer citizen-leaders; and established dozens of new local Alliances that enable Americans to work with rather than against their political opponents to take action in their communities.

» Help us take our work to the next level by contributing to the Braver Angels June Fundraising Drive.

Your contribution will directly support our efforts to scale by growing our volunteer network, expanding our program, increasing our tech capacity, expanding Braver Angels Media to tell the American story, and reaching the most underrepresented segments of American society, including working-class Americans and people of color.

I look forward to working with you and with all the new friends and allies we’ll make along the way, marching forth to showcase a better way for Americans to live together, to build a house united. See you on a debate, workshop, or forum very soon!

Luke Nathan Phillips

Publius Fellow for Public Discourse

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