In her book, The Human Condition, German-Jewish exile and intellectual Hannah Arendt writes “being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life” (57). Arendt means that quite literally we each stand in a different space—no two people see things exactly the same way, even if right beside each other, since they cannot stand in exactly the same place—and each person is a unique being and hence sees things from a perspective that is uniquely his or hers. For Arendt, this plurality of views, opinions, and perspectives creates a rich public realm in which we learn from and about each other through public conversations, informed debates, and shared purposes and projects.
And yet, the public realm is not always one of mutual engagement. Conflict arises, deep differences divide us from others, and public discussion can become public attack. Our differences, as Arendt well knew, can enrich or they can destroy.
Sometimes the editor’s task of introducing an issue is difficult—so disparate are the parts that make up the whole that it is hard to think of just what to say that might bring at least a slight measure of coherence to the issue. But this time our task is surprisingly easy. Though coming at the question from different vantage points, the essays in this issue all focus on problems in the public realm, problems having to do with these fundamental differences that Arendt points us to. From the deep differences that appear as religious pluralization increases across the globe, to the divide that is developing in the U.S. as political polarization deepens, to the contested nature of public opinion and “publicness” when public opinion survey research misses some the deeper and more divisive beliefs that play out in the public realm—the essays in this issue seek to understand the nature of those differences and how they might be made visible and managed without being erased.
The lead question we pose is, “Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?” In response, Rajeev Bhargava, Charles Taylor, Craig Calhoun, and Slavica Jakelić offer a corrective to the simplistic view that secularism is about the absence of religion. Rather they approach the topic through the prism of pluralization, suggesting that secularism may be about ensuring respect for differences, religious and nonreligious, and their expression in a pluralistic culture rather than about the erasure of religion from the public realm. While there are differences among these authors—it would, after all, be unwise to erase their differences in an issue such as this—there is an interesting agreement among them that we need to rethink secularism and think more deeply about its role and its different forms due to the increasing religious diversity that societies are experiencing.
Essays from William Galston, James Davison Hunter, and Carl Desportes Bowman follow a second theme—political polarization. Each discusses the increasing polarization of the American general public in contrast to the widely heard claims that it is only the political elites who are polarized and that they are the source of any polarization that might trickle down to the public. Each seeks a deeper, more cultural understanding of the differences that will be playing out at the polls this month in the U.S. These are differences not merely of public opinion, but of deeply held views and concerns about the world.
Jeffrey K. Olick and Andrew J. Perrin take up this question of public opinion in their research on the Frankfurt School’s group experiments, a series of focus groups conducted in post–World War II Germany that offered substantial critiques of then-current public opinion survey practice, as well as of the findings of the American-run public opinion surveys that depicted Germany as free of anti-Semitism, despite the recent Nazi era. The idea of non-public opinion, deeply held views that do not appear in simple opinion polls, comes from these studies; non-public opinions are those that are deeply held but voiced only in private settings. Olick and Perrin see the work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and their colleagues as suggesting a deeper, richer, and more adequate understanding of “publicness” and of the operation of differences of views, beliefs, and opinions in the public sphere.
Coming at the question of how we manage our deep differences from historically, geographically, and conceptually different places, the authors here all move us to think more deeply about how we can inhabit the public sphere with others, bringing with us our deepest differences, yet sharing that public space, and its public tasks, together. This is a task that we avoid at the cost of our own impoverishment, for as Arendt reminds us, humans, “in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves” (4).