And the Diagnosis is: “Agonistic Hyperplurism”

What’s wrong with the world today, you may well be asking yourself? If we could send our Western Democratic Society off to the doctor for an analysis, what would the diagnosis of our illness be?

I recently listened to an old RN Drive radio program with Waleed Aly on the issue of Melinda Tankard Reist’s position within the “feminist” camp. In that program, Scott Stephens, the editor of the excellent ABC Religion and Ethics website, posited a term that was completely new to me: “agonistic hyperpluralism”.

Now, following the QandA debate between Pell and Dawkins, Stephens has published a complete essay (“Questions without Answers in the Kingdom of Whatever”) on the phenomenon he calls “agonistic hyperpluraism”. I challenge you to read the article and NOT conclude – as I have done – that he is absolutely spot on with his diagnosis of our society’s present illness.

It is a devasting critique of what happens when there is no longer any shared basis for communal discourse.

One phrase in his essay stood out to me: “provided our lives are never constrained by the moral demands of actual community”.

That is what the Church represents for me living in today’s society – an “actual community” that makes real “moral [and faith] demands” upon me as an individual who has chosen to belong to it. Rejecting the kind of “agonistic hyperpluralism” that besets our modern society (and, I would have to be honest to say, also our Church), I have chosen to belong to the community known as “the Catholic Church” and to conform my thinking as an individual to the thinking of this community as a whole. In other words, “Sentire Cum Ecclesia”.

You may think there is “freedom” in being a “free thinker”, unconstrained by the demands of belonging to a coherant and real community. You may say that such “constraint” forces not only uniformity but is a rejection of diversity. I say that such is freedom is nothing but a recipe for the complete disintegration of society. To use an analogy from physics: the reason the world of matter exists and exists in such a marvellous pluriformity, is precisely because the individual building block that make up everything that exists (atoms etc.) hold together and interact on the basis of immutable laws of physics. If each atom was indeed “atomic” (in the sense of individual) nothing concrete would exist. Everything would, in fact, be exactly the same – a dull thin soup of atoms tasting of absolutly nothing.

In positing the idea of “agonistic hyperpluralism”, Stephens has offered a diagnosis of our woes. He does not offer a cure. I believe that the Church does offer a cure. It is an “actual community” that exists with no less an aim than uniting the whole of human society in the Kingdom – not of “whatever” but – of God.

[P.S. If you are not completely burnt-out with these “science and religion” debates, then you might like to join me tonight at 7:30pm at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne for a conversation between two eminent philosophers, Peter Singer and Brendan Purcell. The topic is “the role of reason in faith and unbelief”.]

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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5 Responses to And the Diagnosis is: “Agonistic Hyperplurism”

  1. Tony says:

    Besides finding the term ‘Agonistic Hyperplurism’ utterly meaningless and precocious, David, I thought the article came down to something like ‘the world would be so much better if everyone thought like me (us)’.

    It doesn’t. We are no longer constrained by limited ideas of form or organisation. It’s really, really messy, but it ain’t ‘complete disintegration’ let alone ‘agonistic hyperplurism’.

    To push your physics analogy a bit. The physical world can look really, really chaotic at times (consider natural disasters) but it is a balance of tensions between the forces that constrain and organise and the forces that split and destroy.

    In the social world now that which replaces the ‘immutable laws of physics’ are negotiated and wishing for something different is cursing the sun.

    What is our best ‘weapon’ in that negotiation? The way we love.

    • Schütz says:

      Of course, social cohesian has always been a matter of “negotiation”, Tony. The problem is, that in today’s context, “negotiations” have broken down because there are no shared premises upon which we can negotiate.

      The term “agonistic hyperpluralism” may sound precocious, but broken into its consitutive elements (as Stephens does in the start of his essay) it is very clear, and an exact description of the problem. The idea is that:

      1) We no longer simply have to cope with “pluralism” in our society, where different communities and traditions live side by side – we have to cope with a “hyper-pluralism”, where each individual represents their own “culture” and “ideology”. This makes public discourse on any issue very difficult if not impossible.

      2) This “hyperpluralism” is “agonistic” because it is destructive. It is combative and not merely competitive. It is a source of angst at the heart of our society. It tears at the social fabric rather than acting as the stitches that sew together the patchwork quilt that one would expect in an healthy pluralist society.

      BTW, you don’t use “weapons” in negotiation, you use instruments. Your suggestion that we should use “love” as an instrument in our negotiated harmony in this hyperpluralist society is appealing, but when there are so many different ideas about what even “love” is (“love” itself is a victim of “agonistic hyperpluralism”) the suggestion has little meaning.

  2. Tony says:

    Of course, social cohesian has always been a matter of “negotiation”, Tony. The problem is, that in today’s context, “negotiations” have broken down because there are no shared premises upon which we can negotiate.

    Was it not Twain who said ‘the report of my death was an exaggeration’? Society is still alive, it still strives for common goods. Some things get broken down, others get built up. I’m not being Pollyanna about all this, it is hard and it is a worry, but let’s not go all Hanrahan. Imagine living in places where their is life-threatening disintegration like Zimbabwe or North Korea or Syria … where so many are on the wrong side of their societies’ ‘immutable laws’. We at least have enough belief in the common good of free speech to allow such a discussion to go on without someone coming to blows or being ‘disappeared’ to prison (or worse).

    Re #1: I think that’s a gross exaggeration.

    Re #2: Also an exaggeration, perhaps not as gross.

    I admit that I didn’t put much thought into the term ‘weapon’ but I do think it fits in this sense: Jesus had no (real) weapons in a violent world, his only ‘weapon’ was love in word and action. The love we speak of as Christians, more particularly as Catholics (as represented in this particular case by +Pell) is not ‘meaningless’. Did he show it? I don’t think so. I think his biggest mistake was playing by their rules and even on that score, he came out no better and possibly worse than his opponent. If he didn’t go into that encounter with a plan to ‘show them we are Christians by our love’, then he did a poor job and would probably have been better off not accepting the invitation. He played a game of egos and combative argument and it wasn’t particularly edifying.

    Not, I hasten to confess, that I wasn’t glued to my TV like so many others!

    • Felix the Cassowary says:

      I agree with Tony—”hyperpluralism”, if it’s characterised by each individual having their own culture and ideology, is at best a gross exaggeration. My inclination is to call it patent nonsense.

      In fact, there’s distinct denominations—groups of individuals with a shared ideology—within the individualist West. For instance, there’s idealist progressives like the Greens and the Labor Left. They’ve got a shared narrative, goodies and badies, pseudo-morality. (And no, contra Tony, their morality does not respect free speech. Haven’t you heard about the proposed national media council, also known as the Media Industry National Institute for Truth Reason and Understanding (Minitru)? If your speech offends the right people, they say “go for it”. If it offends the wrong people, they want to come on you like a ton of bricks.)

      Most of his specific problems are just the consequence of the defacto atheistic individualism that probably rules most people, even in different denominations. On the other hand, if you’re trying to talk across denominations, and especially between theistic and non-theistic groups, there’s often not enough understanding of the other’s position. We had that in spades on Monday’s qanda.

      Perhaps we have a bit of a pillarisation happening, where people who have an ideology (whether it be trust in God or in human progress or whatever) are able, with the new media, to have almost everything they do stay within their ideological group. Increasingly you probably don’t have to understand the other side, but yet our self-definitions remain the same. (For instance, yesterday leftist blog Larvatus Prodeo shut down, citing et alia Twitter as replacing the Australian blogosphere—but I simply hadn’t noticed that. Fortunately, no-one’s convinced me to become a twit yet.)

      So, my point in a sentence: he recognises the right problem, but explains it wrongly. If he wants to criticise individualism, be my guest; I don’t think much of it. But there definitely are groups of people with shared moral grammars etc.

      (This leaves aside the non-ideological majority, but the more strongly you hold your opinions the more you want to share them, so the sample set is biased.)

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