Fighting Together: Civil Discourse and Agonistic Honor

In Laurie Johnson & Dan Demetriou (eds.), Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Lexington Books. pp. 21-42 (2016)
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Whereas civil discourse is usually thought to be about defusing conflict, this essay argues it may be fruitfully thought of as fighting honorably for what we believe. Thus agonistic honor, which conceives of rightness in terms of fair and respectful contest for status, will be an especially important virtue in contexts—from classrooms to courtrooms to pluralistic democracies in general—where conflict is inevitable and desirable. To motivate this claim, I take a Hobbesian approach. I begin with a rational reconstruction of honor patterned after Hobbes’ rational reconstruction of justice, and imagine honor-equivalents of “rational” individuals in a “state of nature.” I then describe a multi-stage process that culminates in honorable contests among a natural aristocracy. The lessons from this exercise apply to the question of civil discourse: while the "standard model" of civil discourse aims at resolving disagreement by downplaying rivalry and ego, the more realistic agonistic model harnesses these factors to make our civil debates more culturally sustainable.

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Dan Demetriou
University of Minnesota, Morris


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